TRIANGLE OF SADNESS was the last 2023 best picture nominee I hadn’t seen, but I’d been planning to watch it anyway. It’s the latest from Swedish director Ruben Östlund, and his second in a row to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes. I haven’t seen the previous one (2017’s THE SQUARE), so my impression of him comes from FORCE MAJEURE (2014). Although I liked it I guess I didn’t review it, and I mostly just remember the A+ premise (a guy ruins his marriage in one moment because an avalanche seems to be headed for his family and he runs off without helping them).
The new one further explores the subject of flawed rich people on fateful luxury vacations. It begins with a young couple, Carl (Harris Dickinson, MALEFICENT: MISTRESS OF EVIL) and Yaya (Charlbi Dean, DEATH RACE 3: INFERNO). Carl is a seemingly pretty successful male model (the people at an audition say “It’s you!” in awe when they open his portfolio to a black and white ad for perfume or something) and Yaya is also a model but considers herself a professional influencer. The first chapter of the movie chronicles a passive aggressive comment about who pays for dessert escalating to a screaming near break-up public scene in a hotel elevator just because Carl doesn’t know how to let it go. The long, slow boil from him kind of having a point to making you want to throw him out a window for not moving on to a new topic is kind of a test to see if you’re gonna be able to stand the movie, which is not in a hurry to get anywhere. It’s just cruising.
That’s what this is about – a cruise on a superyacht. They make up in time to go on their cruise for the super-duper rich. The tickets were given to her free (on account of she’s an influencer), so we never know if they’re actually in that income bracket or not. They’re younger than everyone else, though – most of the people they talk to have been running some kind of business empire most of their lives. They get seated with this talkative Russian guy Dimitry (Zlatko Burić, Refn’s PUSHER trilogy) and his wife Vera (Sunnyi Melles, THE BAADER MEINHOF COMPLEX) and other wife (?) Ludmilla (Carolina Gynning), and Dimitry made his fortune selling fertilizer, so he loves to say “I sell shit!” He’s a goofball who might be fun to talk to if stuck with him at something like this, though he continually reveals more about himself and you remember “Oh yeah – this guy’s an actual oligarch.”
He starts out seeming reasonable because he’s amused by, but not rude about, Yaya posing for photos with a forkful of pasta poised by her mouth and then not actually eating it. The concept of the professional lifestyle influencer who spends more time taking selfies than experiencing anything is an easy and deserving target. Östlund is around my age and surely is as befuddled by the whole thing as any of us. So it’s interesting that at times Carl and Yaya become the more relatable, point-of-view type characters in the scene. When the old British couple Clementine (Amanda Walker, 28 WEEKS LATER) and Winston (Oliver Ford Davies, Naboo Beard Guy in THE PHANTOM MENACE) are making small talk about selling landmines and hand grenades the young people have appropriate “oh shit” looks on their faces.
This is definitely a farce, and yet they squeeze some nuance in there. All of these ridiculous buffoons (well, maybe not the arms dealers) have some likable aspect to them. Carl seems okay when he’s not being the absolute worst. Dimitry is really funny when he doesn’t suck. Yaya and Vera are clueless but usually seem like nice people. It’s hard not to feel for lonely Jarmo (Henrik Dorsin) and his awkward interactions with Yaya even though he’s so ridiculously rich from developing apps that he wants to buy her a Rolex for taking a pity selfie with him.
The movie is best at illustrating the ludicrousness of the way people (not just the rich, please realize) treat service people. Before the ship boards, head of staff Paula (Vicki Berlin) pumps up the hospitality crew with a speech about never saying no to any request. “Not even for the last hour. It’s always ‘Yes, sir! Yes, ma’am!’ If there is an illegal substance they want. Or a unicorn…”
This, of course, presents various challenges, like when one guest (Mia Benson) repeatedly demands they clean the sails, though the boat has no sails. “I’m sure we can come up with a solution,” Paula says.
It’s laser accurate in its depiction of people couching their requests to to sound like ordinarily they wouldn’t say anything and really they’re being very reasonable. The dirty sails lady starts off saying how perfect everything was for her sunbathing before she looked up at the (non-existent) sails.
Arguably the pettiest complaint comes from Carl, who reports a crew member (Timoleon Gketsos) for being shirtless and smoking on top of the boat (because he was jealous of Yaya saying hi to him). Paula has to field this tattling as if it’s serious business and then transition right into saleswoman mode when Carl asks to be shown the engagement rings they sell onboard. I think he’s too oblivious to recognize the connection between Paula’s expressions with him and the switching between smiles and frowns he had to do at his modeling audition in the opening scene.
To Carl’s very small credit, he does look like he realizes he’s a piece of shit when he sees that he got that guy fired. But then he goes on with his life. He doesn’t commit seppuku or anything.
A more complex discomfort comes from well-meaning Vera drinking champagne in the hot tub, professing “We are all equal” and demanding the staffer she’s talking to, Alicia (Alicia Eriksson), “reverse roles” and “enjoy the moment” in the tub. I relate profoundly to Alicia’s tortured smile trying to talk sense into her customer without saying “no.” Vera doesn’t catch on to how miserable Alicia is as she weighs which response might not get her fired, and then lowers into the water with her uniform on.
As hard as the job is for these servants in the white polo shirts, they are not the lowest on the totem pole. Östlund and his co-editor Mikel Cee Karlsson often cut from them to other departments – kitchen, cleaning, engine room – all populated primarily by people of color, working in tighter spaces, and likely not expecting the “very generous tip” Paula promised to her staff in that pep talk.
I do believe this is the best picture nominee with the most bodily fluids. (Since BABYLON wasn’t nominated I don’t really have to do the math.) Its broadest stretch is a feverish sequence that builds slowly to a TITANIC-meets-the-Lardass-story-in-STAND-BY-ME peak. Various threads – including the traditional Captain’s Dinner being rescheduled due to Captain Thomas Smith (Woody Harrelson, MONEY TRAIN) always being hung over, and possibly undercooking due to Vera making the entire crew go for a swim – conspire to cause guests to eat seafood delicacies while a storm rocks the boat back and forth, and you can imagine what that leads to. They do an admirable (I suppose) job of ignoring the inevitable for a while, trying to enjoy their fancy ass meals while struggling to even get them down, let alone keep them down. Once the vomit starts flying poor Paula and staff have to stick around pretending like it’s fine.
That’s only the beginning of the horrors. Just wait until the boat floods with shit water. There’s an incredible shot of some poor woman in her underwear, kneeling over her toilet crying and uncontrollably barfing, but the boat is tilting so much she keeps sliding backing and forth across the wet floor. Pretty bad vacation experience! You have to sympathize, despite whatever this woman did to get the money she threw away for this trip. It’s very humanizing to see someone in that state.
The kicker is that Dimitry and Captain Thomas aren’t scared off by the puke, they stay at their table, keep drinking, later end up in the captain’s quarters with Dimitry grunting variations of “Shit. I sell shit” and “Mayday! The ship is going under!” over the intercom. Then everyone is forced to listen to Dimitry (a staunch anti-communist capitalist) and the captain (a self-proclaimed socialist) – a reunion of castmates from Roland Emmerich’s 2012, by the way – drunkenly discuss politics while they’re blasting into or being blasted by their toilets. I laughed very hard at Paula banging on the window trying to get them to stop and Dimitry saying he’s sorry, it was stupid what he did, but it’s okay, and he appreciates what she does.
Note that in Paula’s speech she said that “The success of a luxury cruise depends mainly on two moments. Number one: The first hours the guests are on board. Number two: the last day the guests are on board. If we can impress them on those two occasions then the cruise will probably be a success.” Well… it turns out this will be their last day on board. Because pirates try to take over the ship and end up sinking it. The third side of this triangular story is about some of them trying to survive after washing up on a small island. In a somewhat crushing development, Paula seems to still think she’s on the job. And there’s a searingly believable bit of awfulness where a Black worker from the engine room, Nelson (Jean-Christophe Folly, 35 SHOTS OF RUM), arrives on a life raft and Dimitry gives him the third degree like some vigilante racist patrolling his gated community. “Who are you? Hey, hey you? Hey I’m talking to you.”
The rest of the movie is about the power shift that happens after a Filipino maid named Abigail (Dolly de Leon, ASWANG) arrives in a lifeboat, catches and cooks an octopus, and realizes she’s the only person on the island who knows how to do anything useful. So she forces them to each declare her captain, claims the lifeboat for shelter and begins telling everyone what to do. A more genuine switching of roles than the one Vera proposed at the hot tub.
At first she favors the women, but soon wants Carl to sleep in the boat with her, which he goes along with. So it leaves you and the characters to question how different this is from the transactional relationship he was already in with Yaya, who professed to date him for the sake of social media engagement.
It’s fun, if not earthshaking, to put these oligarchs through the wringer of losing everything and having to face a drastically different class structure. I do think, since it gets so much juice out of a winky eat-the-rich sort of attitude, it feels a little both-sides-y how things turn out with Abigail. Some of her tyranny feels like justifiable payback, but at a certain point she’s considering killing someone. Personally I think the one person on this island who had to clean up puke while the others were having Nutella delivered to them via helicopter has earned the right to be the one morally superior character in the movie. But that’s okay. I appreciate the tragedy of having to return to her old life, and the mix of good intentions and infuriating obliviousness that sets her off.
I don’t consider this a likely best picture winner, but I think it’s one that would suffer from that. It’s a funny movie with a distinct comic tone, impressive technical execution, and universally excellent performances from a large cast inhabiting these really specific characters. But if the nomination hasn’t already done it, I think winning would cause one of those backlashes where suddenly people decide it was intended as some big important movie with a profound statement (or solution to) the class issues it’s goofing on. But that would be silly.
I must’ve read this at the time but it was very sad to research this review and learn that Charlbi Dean died of bacterial sepsis (complications from having her spleen removed after a car crash years ago) before the movie even came out. She was only 32, is really great in the movie, and no doubt would’ve gone on to do more interesting things. R.I.P.
Along with TRIANGLE OF SADNESS the, 2023 Oscar nominees for best picture are:
I think this is a pretty good year for the Oscars, because I liked all of the above. Usually there’s at least one that I thought was pretty terrible or undeserving of a nomination. Like, last year it was DON’T LOOK UP, year before that THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7, in 2019 everybody squirmed when GREEN BOOK won but I’d say BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY and VICE were actually worse! And this is an entirely different category because it’s a good movie but that SPOTLIGHT won over MAD MAX: FURY ROAD makes me wonder if people who make movies have something against the art of making movies.
I know what I want to win and what I would be happier to have win and what would seem kind of disappointing. But whatever it is it’s a movie I enjoyed, so good job on that, Oscar voters.
Trivia: I found the TRIANGLE OF SADNESS screenplay online so I learned that originally he wanted the woman with the earbuds cleaning up the puke to be listening to “Killing In the Name Of.”