Triangle of Sadness: a perilous navigation through class warfare, power struggles and a plot that falls apart

Ruben Östlund, “Triangle of Sadness” (2022)

Just sit right back and you’ll hear a tale, a tale of a fateful trip … er, sorry, this won’t be an affectionate nostalgic run through an episode of the beloved 1960s sitcom “Gilligan’s Island” but rather a perilous voyage through a Bermuda Triangle of power relationships – male / female, master / slave, capitalist / worker relationships – portrayed by Swedish director Ruben Östlund in his blackly satirical comedy “Triangle of Sadness”. The film is divided into three chapters centred more or less around two fashion models Carl (Harris Dickinson) and Yaya (Charlbi Dean Kriek) who subject themselves to the fashion industry’s dictates and obsessions with beauty, celebrity and power. The industry’s influence bleeds into their relationship: though Yaya earns three times as much as Carl does and gets extra benefits like free products and invitations to events as a social influencer on Instagram, she still expects him to pay for dinner dates. The two bicker over money issues and gender roles at dinner in front of other restaurant patrons and while returning to the hotel in a cab.

Yaya is invited onto a luxury yacht cruise in the expectation that she’ll promote it on her Instagram account and she and Carl eagerly take up the invitation. They meet an assortment of wealthy guests including Russian fertiliser billionaire Dmitry (Zlatko Buric) and his wife; an elderly English couple Winston and Clementine who have made their fortune running a company that sells deadly weapons like hand grenades and land mines to dictatorships and other oppressive governments; and a lonely tech millionaire called Jarmo. The guests sun themselves outdoors and lounge about while the ship’s crew answer to their beck and call, obeying the guests’ every request no matter how outlandish, and the cleaners and engineers toil away at their respective arduous duties. The captain of the yacht, Thomas Smith (Woody Harrelson) locks himself away in his room getting drunk and refusing head of staff Paula’s requests to come out and meet his guests.

Finally the captain does consent to appear at a special evening dinner, just as a severe storm hits the yacht. Most guests end up violently sick while the captain and Dmitry start a drunken argument over the merits of socialism and capitalism. As the storm tosses the yacht about, the septic tanks overflow and send muck through the yacht, and the ship’s electricity goes out. In the morning, all seems calm but pirates attack the yacht with a hand grenade (that was manufactured by Winston and Clementine’s company) and blow it up.

A few survivors, Carl and Yaya among them, are washed up onto a remote island but all are completely helpless as to what to do. Enter Abigail (Dolly de Leon), a Filipina cleaner from the yacht who knows how to catch fish and make a fire. Abigail’s survival skills establish her as queen bee on the island and she takes advantage of her power by forcing Carl to become her sex slave.

In very unsubtle fashion the film exposes the nature of social hierarchies among humans and how they affect people’s thinking and behaviour. The wealthy behave as arrogant idiots but those who serve them, from Paula (Vicki Berlin) down to the most lowly like Abigail do not behave any better, especially once power shifts and ends up in their hands. Paula and her fellow stewards act in often obsequious ways while Abigail, on discovering that she holds the power of life and death over other yacht survivors on the island, exploits Carl and manipulates and bosses the other survivors around. The film’s message about human psychology is essentially a pessimistic one suggesting that our social hierarchies mould us mentally to the extent that we are unable to break away from our class status and develop into truly free individuals. Despite his sensitivity about the roles of men and women in Western society and the contradictions that often arise when both males and females try to overcome traditional Western expectations and stereotypes about gender and to negotiate new paths, Carl is unable to stand up for himself and stop women from manipulating him and exploiting his generosity.

Though the film sails briskly through its first couple of chapters, its plot starts to falter once the yacht survivors reach the remote island and create a new social hierarchy with the formerly lowly cleaner now on top. One comedy sketch after another follows with no clear direction as to where these are pointing to. The men turn out to be quite useless at finding food and shelter, and keeping the fire going, even though they include a ship mechanic among them. The women do most of the work gathering firewood and finding food. All of a sudden pretzel sticks become a new currency. In short, the survivors are rebuilding the social hierarchy, one based on manipulating and controlling people, that they had left behind on the destroyed yacht.

Without doubt the film is fiendishly entertaining and enjoyable in its second chapter, in a way that the legendary Spanish director Luis Bunuel would appreciate. Unfortunately the third chapter does not live up to the comedy of the second – too few of the right characters and too many of the wrong characters, it seems, wash up alive on the island. This means that the script must resort to outlandish sketches and scenarios, like a donkey scaring the bejesus out of the castaways, or the discovery of a luxury hotel on a seemingly isolated island to hold audience attention. What could have been a very incisive satire on class warfare and whether humans can survive without class hierarchies ends up being as vapid and even manipulative as its main characters Carl and Yaya. The film’s open ending is sure to enrage some audiences who suspect they are as much the objects of manipulation by the script and its director as Carl is by Yaya and Abigail.