In comic satire ‘Triangle of Sadness,’ class unrest brews at sea

Ruben Östlund’s latest film lampoons easy targets, but his commitment to the bit provides it with some sense of transgression

click to enlarge Triangle of Sadness benefits from a canny range of character actors and bits of slapstick ingenuity which enliven it from scene to scene. - Courtesy photo
Courtesy photo
Triangle of Sadness benefits from a canny range of character actors and bits of slapstick ingenuity which enliven it from scene to scene.

Picture the often sly class commentary in Titanic but with its sincere melodramatics supplanted by a louder version of the same and you’ll have a rough sense of what Triangle of Sadness is like. Writer and director Ruben Östlund delivers arthouse spectacle and social satire with a sense of commitment but no real agility, allegorizing neoliberal class dynamics — with the ship’s societal microcosm encompassing a damning spread of practices running from warmongering to cajoling service staff and promoting a vapidly classist influencer culture. The film’s conclusions are hard to argue with but rarely too surprising, skewering easy targets (as did the Swedish director’s last film, The Square) in a manner enlivened more by commitment to each bit than the insights embedded within them. Still, Triangle’s cynicial gaze captures some crucial piece of being alive and observant of one’s surroundings right now. Sometimes, in life as in art, the upshots are both damned and destined to be obvious.

Situating a well-heeled crew of international travelers on a cruise ship bound for parts unstated, Triangle benefits from a canny range of character actors and bits of slapstick ingenuity which enliven it from scene to scene. Östlund, speaking through both dialogue and situation with blunt, bullish confidence informed by the conviction that the film’s often easy satire is nonetheless right, manages to make its comedy work even as it elbows its way through purposefully stiff, ungainly scenes. The film’s ad campaigners are shallow, sure, but did you know that beauty culture is also white supremacist? Can you believe how far entitled white women will go to subjugate service workers? Conclusions which may be more novel to arthouse audiences in Sweden or France (where the movie won the Cannes Film Festival’s top prize) are liable, it seems, to feel more obvious (whether for being seen here, or by me) in a domestic context. But that doesn’t exactly halt the comic bits from playing, or from notching together into a tidily linked chain benefitting from a clear metaphorical throughline.

It’s Östlund’s bullishness and deliberation — and his thoroughgoing sense of commitment — that provide Triangle with something approaching transgression. Allegorizing class stratification, and especially the upper crust’s self-interested neglect of responsibility, the film’s small world churns and shakes to examine the effects of their political and interpersonal tendencies on the whole of society.

These explorations mostly take the form of absurdist set-pieces ranging from slapstick to comedies of manners, ones I don’t wish to spoil. That said, I can point to the film’s poster (which highlights an elaborate seasickness/puking gag) and the trailer (which features plenty of maniacal scenes of eager class performance). Each occurs within a moderated world of even, flattering lighting, of beachy blues and tans, of people young and beautiful enough to garner the worshipful servitude of others and/or rich enough to buy the very same. If the milieu seems too easy a target (as was often suggested of the art gallery world in The Square), the film’s petty rich too grotesque in their excesses and insecurities, then it’s hard to imagine how they might be both convincing and any other way when looking at the world around us.

Falling closer to Parasite than, say, the botched and hand-wringing political satire of Adam McKay’s Don’t Look Up, Triangle of Sadness is chillier than either of them, treating its characters as experimental subjects we look in on from outside. At the same time — thanks to their performances, which occur along a shared, somewhat flattened comic register — they all seem equally capable of wrongdoing; as in Parasite, the film’s more working-class characters prove no real exception.

As a matter of obvious course and inevitable comic escalation, Triangle’s carefully ordered world comes to be eventually disrupted, giving Östlund an opportunity to test the endurance of the structures he’s less laid bare than regarded plainly: in their default, naked state. Without saying too much, it’s at this point that the film invites — really, necessitates — the imposition of his imagination, requiring him to look at the way class realities and resentments come to be imbibed and maintained by characters from the film’s full variety of social strata. In his best scenes, Östlund’s work comes from pressing each point, pushing through and past the realm of the obvious to places where the unexpected can and must occur. But it’s chiefly here, in the film’s second half, that these scenes become unexpected not only on the level of scene work or event but of social implication, pointing to realities and dynamics not possible in the film’s first stretch. And that’s no coincidence, for it’s here that the film’s allegory becomes forward-looking, attempting to imagine a future after a rupture in its compact social world, with implications for the corresponding one its viewers inhabit.

In moving to this more speculative place, Östlund’s satire arrives on ground that’s risky for its suggestions becoming arguable, energized by adhering less to the observable and politically obvious. But with these risks come drawbacks: scenes move at times (as throughout) with a dramatic logic that’s more engaging than their suggested points; others feel comparatively rich in psychological insight or social implication. But it’s an improvement anyway to see the film ask questions to which it doesn’t always know the answer, even if it managed to be funny enough to be worth its running time.

By its finish, Triangle of Sadness’s bluntness transforms itself into an avenue to more compelling, less facile questions than it asked closer to its start, more reliable throughout as a fount of commentary than of social comment. In a time of what feels like increasingly prevalent crassness, it’s often tough when remarking on it — as is plainly visible here — to do more than state the obvious. We’re lucky Triangle gets to that place at all.

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