There’s a scene in this year’s Cannes Palme d’Or winner Triangle of Sadness (2022) in which a millionaire shipwrecked on an island stones a donkey to death, its final groans echoing through the jungle. It’s an excessively disturbing experience for everyone involved: the millionaire, the other castaways, and the audience.
This provocative approach to inflicting agony on his subjects tracks throughout Swedish filmmaker Ruben Östlund’s latest movie. It’s a blunt, effective, and at times tough-to-watch satire of the ultra-rich and the fashionable, two easy targets for Östlund’s particular brand of wit. But the film truly shines when dissecting the economic value of beauty as it exists today with Instagram influencers and their ilk.
Triangle of Sadness follows a model couple, Carl (Harris Dickinson) and Yaya (Charlbi Dean Kriek, in her last role before her tragic death this past August), as they navigate the troubled intersections of excessive money and high fashion. Carl has insecurities about his career and their relationship that are only compounded by Yaya’s manipulative behavior. Early in the film, the two have a standoff at a restaurant over who will foot the bill—Yaya gets paid three times as much as Carl, but expects Carl to pay for dinner and doesn’t like to talk about money. The fight escalates into an elevator screaming match before cooling into an honest conversation about gender roles, highlighting how money complicates their relationship.
In an interview at Cannes, Östlund acknowledged that Triangle of Sadness and his two previous films, fellow Palme d’Or-winner The Square (2017) and Force Majeure (2014), form “a loosely-connected trilogy exploring masculinity in modern times.” Carl struggles to reconcile his financial status in relation to Yaya, and Dickinson impressively portrays these complexities; Carl whimpers as Yaya’s Instagram boyfriend, bumbles into her rhetorical traps, and occasionally lashes out before being put back in his place.
The couple embarks on an all-expenses-paid luxury cruise, courtesy of Yaya’s influencer side hustle. The whole cruise experience has been meticulously planned by head steward Paula (Vicki Berlin), who has instructed the crew to follow every passenger order in the hopes of a hefty tip at the end of the trip. The ship is captained by a feckless, alcoholic Marxist (Woody Harrelson), and the couple joins a group of obnoxiously wealthy passengers—oligarchs, arms dealers, tech mavens—that quickly starts to fall apart. The toxic relationship between the out-of-touch passengers and obsequious crew leaves a bitter taste from the get-go.
One day, some of the passengers cruelly demand the entire crew go for a swim while they’re preparing the elaborate captain’s dinner for that evening. When a storm hits, unsettling a boatful of stomachs lavished with spoiled seafood and champagne, a torturously graphic extended sequence follows of retching, belching, and shitting: a sensory overload of bodily fluids made even worse by the back-and-forth rocking of the camera with the storm waves. Östlund lays the critique on heavy as the captain (who conveniently orders a burger) and Russian oligarch Dimitriy (Zlatko Burić), the self-styled king of shit, drunkenly argue over the ship’s intercom about Marxism and capitalism, trading Reagan, Thatcher, and Lenin quotes while the passengers lay defeated in the ship, now without power and inundated with toilet water.
The cruise ends prematurely—it’s attacked by pirates and blown to bits by grenades produced by the sweet, elderly British arms dealer couple, Winston (Oliver Ford Davies) and Clementine (Amanda Walker), whose names are a clear nod to the Churchills—but some of the passengers and crew survive and swim to a deserted island with only the limited provisions stored in the lifeboat. The castaways soon realize how ill-equipped they are for survival in a world where their money is no longer currency, paving the way for Abigail (Dolly De Leon), the ship’s former toilet manager and the only person who can fish, cook, or start a fire, to become the new leader.
Dimitriy, a former Reagan-loving Russian capitalist, quotes Marx—“from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs”—trying to make the situation more equitable, but the freshly-minted socialist’s pleas are left unanswered. They need Abigail far more than she needs them, and she relishes in the power this imbalance creates.
De Leon steals the third act as the no-nonsense autocrat, demanding deference, meting out food and punishments, and trading sexual favors from “pretty boy” Carl for extra rations of pretzels. The tables turn for Carl, who finally finds himself in a relationship with a woman who provides for him, and for Yaya, whose beauty no longer carries any cachet. Her descent on the island is one of the comedic highlights of the film, as her Instagram-worthy tresses are reduced to a frazzled mess full of pretzel crumbs.
Much of the discourse surrounding Triangle of Sadness has centered on its showpiece vomiting sequence and its skewering of the ultra-rich but glosses over its treatment of beauty, the film’s most incisive and exciting critique, and Östlund’s starting point for the movie as a whole. In an interview with the LA Times, the filmmaker notes that “I knew from the beginning that I wanted the film to be about beauty as a currency.” Carl and Yaya’s contrasting experiences with the monetization of their attractiveness in the world, flipped when stranded on the island, encapsulate the problems of an economy built on valorizing beauty. Carl’s attractiveness is not a skill that helps the group survive, and yet he is rewarded for it. And the issues it causes for the couple—anger, jealousy, insecurity—only add to Östlund’s point and make the film even more hilarious.
Triangle of Sadness succeeds in satirizing excess and artifice, as expected from a filmmaker like Östlund. Its chaotic structure further lends itself to the outrageousness of its characters. But the film’s critique of beauty as currency elevates it and makes the film truly exceptional. We seem to take for granted that beauty engenders privilege, but the sheer absurdity of this notion—like Yaya posing as if she’s about to eat a forkful of pasta for a promotional Instagram post before setting it aside (she’s gluten intolerant)—is often willfully ignored. Triangle of Sadness delivers this message throughout the film’s 149-minute runtime, one entertaining, potentially vomit-inducing forkful at a time.