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Triangle of Sadness Disrupts—and Disgusts—the One Percent

Ruben Östlund’s Palme D’Or winner is a hysterical deconstruction of capitalist society’s economic ladder

Image: Courtesy Neon.

If you aren’t provoked by the Palme D’or winner, is it truly a Palme D’or winner? The most prestigious prize at the annual Cannes Film Festival is often awarded to the most thought-provoking, emotional rollercoaster in competition. It’s no surprise that over the past decade winners include ParasiteBlue is the Warmest Color, and last year’s Titane. They’re buzzy films that stimulate the mind and the mouth. Triangle of Sadness, this year’s winner at Cannes—and the second Palme D’or for auteur Ruben Östlund—is no different. In fact, its sharp satirical style is meant not only to stir conversation but to upend it.

Triangle of Sadness s an inherently difficult film to talk about, because Östlund makes it a difficult film to watch. Separated into three acts, Triangle of Sadness is an amalgamation of black comedy, satire, drama, romcom, and survival story. The films starts off at its easiest, taking a sharp needle to the fashion industry, modeling, and shallow relationships. We’re introduced to Carl and Yaya (Harris Dickinson and the late Charlbi Dean), a pair of young models in an Instagram-friendly relationship, one upheld for its professional upside, rather than love. They quarrel, in hilarious fashion, about the rather shallow things expected of faux posh twenty-somethings: picking up the bill, life plans, keeping things casual versus making things more serious. It’s an extremely predictable opening act for what turns out to be quite an audacious film, though it provides a couple of key elements the rest of the film is predicated on.

For one, this first act cements Carl and Yaya as the film’s central characters. Even when the spotlight isn’t on the couple, they’re never too far into the shadows. It’s as if they want you to know they’re there. More importantly, however, the opening act contextualizes the socioeconomic world that Ruben Östlund is about to disrupt in the second act: The Yacht.

Here is where Triangle of Sadness spends the majority of its hefty two-and-a-half hour runtime. The film situates itself on a two hundred and fifty million dollar yacht, whose patrons are the rich of the richest, the decimal point-holders of the top one percent. These European capitalists are the ones who start and stop the global economy with the snap of their fingers and can destabilize governments with the a simple signature. They are the big fish in a pond that Yaya and Carl find themselves hopelessly under-prepared to swim in. Sure, aesthetically the Instagram models fit the bill, but they aren’t actually in the same league as their fellow shipmates.

Of course, much like the three-story theater I saw Triangle of Sadness in, this yacht contains levels. It isn’t just billionaires and influencers. The cast expands to a slew of deckhands, party planners, and one drunkenly, elusive communist captain (played to perfection by Woody Harrelson), all of whom serve the fantastical whims of the ship’s rich vacationers. It’s here that Triangle of Sadness finally cashes in on the good-will its earned by setting up its satire so meticulously.

The Yacht, as an act, is one of the most ridiculous, hysterical, and downright disgusting stretches of film in years. It is also one of the best. From a technical perspective: the production design, cinematography, sound editing, and special effects are all expertly executed. None of them could be better. There are certain Jackass-esque sequences that really make you pause between laughs and ask yourself, “How did they film this?” On the other hand, from a writer’s perspective, I was in awe at Östlund’s audacity to take the “eat-the-rich” motif and turn it on its head. It’s an impeccable bit of screenplay writing, with an even better script. The Yacht provided, without a shadow of a doubt, the provocation needed to win Triangle of Sadness the Palme D’or and get audiences talking.

The third act takes an exotic turn—one not to be spoiled here—that nearly brought the house down in my theater. (I must insist that seeing this film with as many folks as possible is imperative.) And while the third act certainly drags on, the film stays afloat because of the star turns of so many unlikely actors. Harris Dickinson is great, as is Woody Harrelson, and Charlbi Dean (who passed away quite suddenly after the premiere of the film) is an absolute tour de force throughout the whole film. But it’s the real breakout performances of Zlatko Burić and Dolly de Leon that save the film from drowning under its relentless waves of satire. They have an infectious electricity that carries audiences through the back half of the film.

In its entirety, Triangle of Sadness is a monument of black comedy and cutting social commentary. It’s also a gluttonous, over-indulgent, and ironic winner of the Palme D’or. (Oh, how special it is that the most pretentiously elite film festival in the world awarded an anti-capitalist satire their top prize.) For regular folks like me, the 99-percenters who go to the movies in jeans and a hoody, Triangle of Sadness is the best time I’ll ever have on a runway or a luxury yacht. Burning down the socioeconomic ladder has never been more fun—or provoking.

Written by Todd Pengelly

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