The uglier the issue of beauty becomes the closer you look at it. Meanwhile, wealth is excessive from almost every perspective. In “Triangle of Sadness,” irreverent Swedish satirist Ruben stlund probes the pores of the exclusive worlds of supermodels and the mega-rich. The title comes from a fashion-world word for the deep-V furrow that emerges between one’s brows with stress or age. A little Botox can’t hurt, right?
stlund’s brilliantly humorous English-language follow-up to “The Square” doesn’t feature any of the same characters as his 2017 Palme d’Or winner, but it employs a similar strategy of placing individuals in very uncomfortable circumstances. It’s a Buelian strategy, a la “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie,” and it’s one that Stlund has perfected in art cinema. His working hypothesis here, aired between debates about capitalism and Karl Marx, is that beauty is a type of currency in and of itself, albeit one that, like crypto, is extremely volatile and fickle and can crash at any time. Stlund puts this theory to the test by sending an ultra-elite cruise ship to the bottom of the sea and watching how the survivors cope with being stranded on a desert island. There’s a Rolex there.
Social media influencers Carl and Yaya (basically, professional selfie-takers who upload images of themselves appearing to appreciate whatever goods they’re provided), played by Harris Dickinson and Charlbi Dean, are the film’s appropriately shallow heroes. The couple can’t seem to decide if they’re really a relationship or just pretending to be one to acquire a few more online followers. In any event, they squabble like soon-to-be-ex-lovers, which appears to be a very appropriate description of their predicament.
Yaya has been invited to a complimentary ride on a luxurious super yacht (the almost-100-meter Christina O, once the prize of Aristotle Onassis). Her card gets refused at a restaurant before boarding, and he makes a fraction of what she does, as is customary in the fashion sector. The other passengers are drowning in dough — and may soon perish as a result, because the ship is an apparent target for a pirate attack.
The film begins on land, behind the scenes of a fashion shoot, where a documentary team outlines a few basic principles, such as how luxury brands look down on their customers. This sector is an easy attack because of its clearly shallow, undeniably foolish emphasis on appearances over content. Still, Stlund appears to be functioning on a critique of the sector from the early 2000s, which is excellent but a little behind the times. One could question where influencers fit into this. The fashion business adjusts just when the public believes they’ve cracked the code.
It would be far more daring to confront how these tastemakers are dealing with a public that has begun to tell them what they think is beautiful — basically, all the characteristics that were once bullied in schoolyards: redheads and freckles, Kardashian curves and people of colour, pretty boys and flat-chested girls. “Perfection” is easy to achieve in the age of Instagram filters and low-cost cosmetic surgeries. It turns out that personality is more difficult to come by.
It’s intriguing that Stlund cast Dean, who makes no attempt to disguise her abdominal scar, and Dickinson, who gives a fragile fragility to the Abercrombie frat-boy type (having played bi in “Beach Rats”), as the Abercrombie frat-boy type. Throughout the first act, Stlund sees these two attempting to navigate their strange relationship, fighting over the tiniest of details. Carl is enraged when a member of the crew removes his shirt on the trip. The man’s chest and back are covered in a carpet of hair, which is the polar opposite of Carl and his fellow models’ depilated Ken-doll look. He complains to Paula (Vicki Berlin), the ship’s chief cook, and the guy is sent packing.
The opening half of “Triangle of Sadness” is primarily made up of these kinds of sequences, in which the characters demonstrate their power over one another. Dimitriy (Zlatko Buri), a filthy-rich Russian fertiliser magnate, offers to buy the boat from the captain (Woody Harrelson, whose ridiculous character spends much of the film drunk in his cabin), but his wife Vera (Sunnyi Melles) insists, “We are all equals,” ordering the crew to abandon their responsibilities and join her for a swim. When confronted with such wealth, they do not know how to say no.
The captain’s supper follows, which plays out like a Monty Python parody, with diners attempting to swallow oysters while the boat is rocked by a storm. Like Peter Sellers’ Nazi salute in “Dr. Strangelove,” a woman in a wheelchair screams the same German phrase. “Oh Winston, isn’t this one of ours?” a nice old couple reveals that they got their millions selling hand grenades (setting up the film’s most sadistic punchline). When her toilet belches its contents back in her face, a trophy wife nearly drowns. Everything is so out of hand that the subtle schadenfreude has given way to anxiety. These people may be obnoxious at times, but no one deserves it. Or what comes next. But testing the limits is what
The film’s last third centres on a group of passengers and crew who wash up on an island and quickly find that none of them have the abilities to survive even a few days in the wild. Then a lifeboat carrying one of the crew, Abigail, comes (Dolly De Leon). Abigail was a mere toilet manager on board, but she understands how to cook and fish, making her the new makeshift society’s leader. The characters have been acting in exaggerated but identifiable ways up to this point, but now Stlund takes them into hypothetical terrain, brilliantly showing his own thoughts about human nature.
Apart from Carl, who is attractive, these castaways have nothing worthwhile to contribute, which sets up a barter system — food and shelter in exchange for sexual favours — that audiences would not tolerate if the gender roles were reversed. Carl had been looking at $25,000 engagement rings to give Yaya an hour before. He’s now exchanging massages for pretzel sticks. It’s amusing, yet cruel. Anyone who has developed any type of relationship to this pair by the time the film reaches its womp-womp conclusion will find the phrase “triangle of sadness” to be a more than fitting description of their new dynamic.
Stlund has the ability to make you laugh while simultaneously making you think. He builds, blocks, and executes sequences with exquisite precision, creating an agonising uneasiness heightened by awkward silences or an unpleasant fly buzzing between characters straining to communicate. “The Square” comes first, followed by “Triangle.” We’re going to see the world differently no matter what sphere he tackles.