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Ship of Fools

Fredrik Wenzel

Triangle of Sadness (2022)

“Triangle of Sadness” continues writer-director Ruben Östlund’s preoccupation with the upending of hierarchical social constructs – gender, race, wealth, class, chain of command etc. – in the face of disasters natural or manmade. It’s certainly the kind of stuff that plays well at festivals, as evidenced by Cannes twice bestowing on him the Palme d’or. But does anyone honestly remember what happens in “The Square,” which won him his first in 2017, without looking up the plot? “Triangle,” Mr. Ostlund’s second Palme d’or winner, has a wild ending that feeds right into the rush of the festival setting; the problem lies in the uneven two and a half hours it takes to get there.

The film’s three acts, separated by chapter headings, take place in different settings and only tangentially connect to one another through two characters. To fully critically engage necessitates some spoiling, especially with regard to the third act. We’ll be circumspect but consider yourself warned.

The first act is set in the world of fashion, one of the few industries where women significantly outearn men, yet model Yaya (Charlbi Dean) expects male model Carl (Harris Dickinson) to pick up their dinner tab. This segment has a few amusing ironies. At casting, a TV reporter commands a group of models to alternately pose for H&M and Balenciaga, smile for cheap disposable fast fashion and glower for unaffordable haute couture. At a runway show, with “Everyone’s equal” prominently projected in the background, guests in the audience get bumped to make room for V.I.P.

In the second, Mr. Östlund depicts absurd inequities without coming to much of a point, getting sidetracked by gross-out comedy. Yaya the social media influencer and Carl get a free ride on a luxury yacht for the uber-rich where his complaint gets an overstepping crew member (Timoleon Gketsos) fired. A guest (Mia Benson) repeatedly pesters the crew over the vessel’s supposedly dirty sails despite there being none, dirty or otherwise. Chief steward Paula (Vicki Berlin) urges the staff to always respond with an enthusiastic yes, and apparently there’s no exception when guest Vera (Sunnyi Melles) insists the entire crew should shirk their duties and take turns going down the waterslide.

The captain (Woody Harrelson), who locks himself in his room for most of the voyage, orders that the customary captain’s dinner take place on an evening with storms in the forecast. Mr. Östlund here abandons any semblance of good taste and goes straight to the lowest common denominator for laughs with our self-proclaimed Marxist captain and self-proclaimed capitalist Russian oligarch, Dimitry (Zlatko Burić), engaging in a spirited but trivial debate; the scene’s sole point seems to be how frivolous and out of touch the entire discourse is when the world is going to shit, quite literally.

Here comes the spoiler: We avoid this sort of thing at all costs, but we are actually not giving away anything that isn’t in the press notes or the synopses provided by the Cannes and Sydney film festivals. A small group of passengers and crew members from the yacht is marooned on a deserted island. Abigail (Dolly De Leon), a toilet manager we hardly notice in act two, shores up in a lifeboat stocked with bottled water and chips. Paula immediately orders her to surrender the food and drink to others. But Abigail soon assumes the hunter-gatherer role in this makeshift “Survivor” tribe and gets to call the shots. Why don’t they all just get in the lifeboat and go somewhere? Nobody knows!

The film churns steadily toward a foregone but nevertheless powerful conclusion in which Abigail must decide if she wishes to relinquish power and control over this microcosm and return to normal society – an ending actually spoiler-proof, but your guess is as good as mine.

“Triangle of Sadness” proves a lot more memorable than “The Square,” which, in retrospect, was ahead of its time in its treatment of cancel culture – if you do actually bother to look up the plot. But “Triangle” is slow to a crawl, and the stuff you recall isn’t exactly sharply observant social critique or satire. It has to do with passengers getting seasick, the toilet overflowing and the heard-but-not-seen slaughtering of an animal. While the ending packs an undeniable punch, does Mr. Östlund deserve a second Palme d’or? Surely not. The only person in this entire enterprise that demands recognition is Ms. De Leon. Carl and Yaya, the only characters to appear in all three acts, barely even register in the end. Abigail declares herself captain of the island, and she is absolutely right. Let’s hope the film’s own award-season trajectory isn’t one that rewards the white folk when a woman of color does the heavy lifting.


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