It’s been a long two years since audiences ran away from the American remake of “Force Majeure” like it was a killer avalanche cascading towards their families, so perhaps Ruben Östlund — the rascally Swedish filmmaker whose other features include “Play” and 2017’s Cannes-winning, take-no-prisoners caricature of the art world, “The Square” — has just forgotten that other people are perfectly capable of making toothless, watered-down versions of Ruben Östlund movies. He may have dug that particular hole, but he’s under no obligation to fill it himself.
Alas, the much-anticipated “Triangle of Sadness” — which features Woody Harrelson as the alcoholic communist captain of an 100-meter superyacht once owned by Aristotle Onassis, and which ought to be Östlund’s most hostile and ambitious comedy yet — is frustratingly obtuse by the time it even leaves port.
It’s no secret that the Palme d’Or is a prize heavy enough to anchor certain filmmakers in place, but it also seems fair to assume that a two-and-a-half-hour class satire from a major artist will be sharper than an episode of “Below Deck,” even if that show is ruthlessly brilliant across all four of its different incarnations. That “Triangle of Sadness” is more coherent than “Film Socialisme” and shorter than “Titanic” only does so much to keep it from sinking towards the bottom of my Movies About a Bunch of Rich Weirdos Aboard a Big-Ass Boat list on Letterboxd, right below “The Cat’s Meow” and just above “Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked.”
If not for such high expectations, “Triangle of Sadness” surely wouldn’t feel like so much of a wash. Each of its three chapters, which bob into each other like dinghies that’ve been hastily tied to the same dock during a hurricane, offer ample opportunity for Östlund to poke fun at the empty promise of financial equality in a world where even the bodies we’re born into command different economic value. The film’s title might allude to the wrinkle of skin between your eyebrows, but that pyramidal geometry more pressingly refers to Östlund’s fascination with social hierarchies — and the glee he takes in flipping them upside down, as if that alone might be enough to see them in a new light.
It starts, as all movies should, in the world of high-end male modeling. A muted and dangerously almost-smart Derek Zoolander type who Harris Dickinson plays to perfection, the 25-year-old Carl is reaching the geriatric stage of his career, and the anxiety over his economic future is starting to make his eight-pack look two abs short. A merciful society would simply euthanize Carl rather than make him suffer the slow indignity of losing Instagram followers — and spare us the unpleasantness of having to look upon this hideous creature for another 145 minutes — but the fashion industry is not so kind. Instead, Carl finds himself without a seat at his supermodel girlfriend Yaya’s latest runway show (she’s played by Charlbi Dean), and then haggling with her, exhaustingly, over the dinner bill later that night.
These opening scenes contain occasional glimpses of the impish wit that Östlund has long deployed against male insecurities, and he still loves to watch men squirm their way through pained surrenders of gendered power. On the strength of its staging alone, one bit in which Carl and Yaya fling money at each other while arguing across the opposite sides of a closing elevator door almost manages to generate the same friction that makes Östlund’s previous work so wonderfully itchy. For the most part, however, the director’s freeform approach to screenwriting comes up short this time, as his actors sulk and spon-con their way through a quixotic search for parity amid capitalism.
The situation threatens to improve when Carl and Yaya arrive on the superyacht they’ll share with Russian fertilizer billionaires and a couple of kindly British arms dealers (the models’ passage has been paid for in #ads). You don’t really have to see “Triangle of Sadness” to imagine what kind of shenanigans Östlund indulges once his movie is at sea. It’s all too possible that nothing in the vast “Triangle of Sadness” is funnier than the prolonged sequence in which a whole-ass helicopter is hired to airdrop a jar of Nutella onto the boat just so that one rich passenger doesn’t have to be without her precious hazelnut spread.
Privilege is seen warping behavior in all sorts of predictable ways, from the cringey (Carl’s sexual insecurity leads to an issue with a swarthy deckmate) to the exasperating (one noxious woman orders the ship’s entire staff to go for a “fun” swim in order to assuage her guilt over their servitude). Everyone has a role to play, even if all the parts are ultimately circumstantial, and every relationship is a business arrangement, even if all the people in them are able to convince themselves otherwise.
It’s only the richest passengers who can afford to act on their own terms. At first I assumed the cute old war mongers were so polite in order to make themselves better about blowing people up for profit, but then they openly bemoan the “hard times” when they couldn’t sell enough landmines (the influence of Noam Chomsky’s “The Way the World Works” is so immense that the book’s eventual appearance on screen feels like when a movie Avenger shows up to legitimize one of Marvel’s rinky-dink Disney Plus shows). Perhaps that façade would be harder to maintain if these two sweet death-dealers didn’t look like they could play Hugh Grant’s parents in a Richard Curtis rom-com.
That disconnect between form and function is reflected in the austerity of Östlund’s filmmaking, which continues to flatten broad comedy beats under the weight of Haneke-severe compositions. With the exception of the movie’s centerpiece sequence — a seasick eruption of shit and vomit so intense that it manages to engender sympathy for some of the worst people in the world — “Triangle of Sadness” appears determined to suck the laughter out of every scene. The only thing Östlund’s po-faced characters can’t afford is to recognize the absurdity inherent to their lives, and so the movie keeps our response muted to a low chuckle, as if anything louder might reach the people on screen and cause the whole charade to fall apart.
That applies to the working-class characters as well, though “Triangle of Sadness” is sometimes more acutely satirical with them. That starts with Harrelson’s two-scene appearance as the drunken captain who all of the passengers want to meet; his sardonic performance is in sync with the film’s semi-indifferent sense of its own power to affect change, but the actor seems to share Östlund’s pleasure in watching the world get turned upside down. Then again, Harrelson also seemed to be having a lot of fun in “Zombieland 2,” so I’m not sure if that’s the best metric for judging his work here.
Elsewhere, we see the ship’s all-white service crew end their daily meeting by chanting “MONEY! MONEY! MONEY!” like a group of apes that have just discovered a Monolith. Östlund doesn’t overly belabor the hierarchical aesthetics of race aboard the ship, but he makes sure to note that the skin tones get darker the deeper his camera descends into the boat/the further away it gets from the guests sunning themselves on the surface — a dynamic that’s completely undone when “Triangle of Sadness” inverts all of its angles for a third act better danced around than discussed head-on.
It’s here, in the film’s shrewdest yet most underwhelming chapter, that Östlund is able to cash in on several of the long, long, long-term investments he made in the first two, as his characters rearrange themselves into a new matrix of transactional relationships in accordance to a radically different economy based on needs instead of luxuries. Some forms of beauty grow more valuable while others become a liability, yet the pecking order and power dynamics of the old world order remain the same even if the individual people have swapped places in that system.
“From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” has a nice ring to it, but the situation here doesn’t resemble a Marxist utopia so much as a funhouse mirror image of how things were before. Looks and class are still inextricable, even for the people who are trying to rip them apart. Everyone may not be equal, but perhaps we’re all the same. It’s a shrug of a conclusion — one that “Triangle of Sadness” reaches with a poorly revealed twist that isn’t worth the torpor it takes to get there. It wouldn’t be worth getting there at all if not for the great Filipino actress Dolly de Leon (“Verdict”), who rises from the bowels of the superyacht, grabs this film by the throat, and chokes it so hard that you can’t help but feel a faint pulse throbbing to life from under all that irony.
If not for de Leon’s bold and heartsick performance, “Triangle of Sadness” would fail to achieve any real measure of the physical discomfort that has animated so much of Östlund’s previous work. A beautifully shot movie so fixated upon the aesthetic value of human bodies can only get by on being really, really, ridiculously good-looking for so long before it needs to cut under the skin. “Talking about money is unsexy,” Yaya concludes in the first 20 minutes. If only Östlund didn’t have so much more to say about it. And so little.
“Triangle of Sadness” premiered in Competition at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.