Triangle of Sadness film review: The rich are revolting

Ruben Östlund’s sprawling satire is rarely subtle, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing

Triangle of Sadness offers sceptics a wide hull at which to aim
Triangle of Sadness
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Director: Ruben Östlund
Cert: 15A
Starring: Harris Dickinson, Charlbi Dean, Woody Harrelson, Vicki Berlin, Henrik Dorsin, Zlatko Burić, Jean-Christophe Folly, Iris Berben, Dolly De Leon
Running Time: 2 hrs 30 mins

There has been much critical brawling about Ruben Östlund’s broad satirical depth-charge since it manoeuvred its director toward a second Palme d’Or at Cannes in May. No surprise there. Sending a group of obscenely rich parasites forth on a (no spoiler surely) doomed luxury yacht, Triangle of Sadness offers sceptics a wide hull at which to aim.

We are never far away from those cartoons of overweight cats in monocles and top hats that used to so entertain early 20th-century radicals. Nothing more amplifies the clunk than Östlund’s decision to settle on “Winston” and “Clementine” when naming the toffee-nosed older couple enjoying the profits of weapons manufacture. The late UK prime minister’s forename would surely be enough. We don’t need to be also poked with his wife’s. Any broader than that and you’re edging into Don’t Look Up territory.

The relish of the attack, the invention of the imminent mortifications and the cool precision of Östlund’s filmmaking rescues Triangle of Sadness from such dangers. We may always know where the satire is taking us, but there is no preaching and there is no pomposity. Whereas Östlund’s The Square, winner of the Palme d’Or in 2017, sat back swathed in irony for much of its duration, the new film invites us to enjoy scooping out the passenger’s richly inconvenienced metaphorical – and sometimes literal – wet guts. You may already be aware that the highlight of the picture is a spectacular episode of massed, Wagnerian vomiting. We are here to have a good, disreputable time.

Ruben Östlund: ‘I wanted to have the most vomiting that we have ever had on screen’Opens in new window ]

For all the plum-on-the-nose satire, Östlund does not, however, fall into the trap of making every target a monster. The film begins with a rambling sequence involving interactions between irritatingly good-looking male and female models. The excellent Harris Dickinson makes something almost sympathetic of a mannequin who, facing the horrors of being aged mid-20s, needs to find a route towards professional recalibration. The equally strong Charlbi Dean (who, tragically, died suddenly in August) plays off him sharply as a girlfriend still at the top of the catwalk game.


Eventually, they end up on an absurdly lavish yacht captained by a permanently drunk and bracingly Marxist Woody Harrelson. Also on board is a cynical Russian oligarch, a German woman who seems capable of speaking just one sentence, that arms-trading couple and other complacent snoots. Östlund’s script is well-tuned to the less obvious ways in which the rich embarrass and inconvenience those serving them. The film’s most excruciating moment comes when one of the guests – suddenly at home to entirely recreational concern – insists that the staff all have time to enjoy a swim. Their rictus grins remain in place, but it is clear the crew would prefer their supposed betters just shut up and drink their Bloody Marys. Such scenes feel culled from research.

The film is structured in three acts, but otherwise it drifts erratically from set-piece to set-piece. The spiky dialogue between Zlatko Burić as the Russian billionaire and Harrelson as the barely upright captain reminds us how those at either end of the political spectrum often prefer debating each other than milquetoasts in the soft centre. The implied winks confirm both know what’s really at stake. As in The Time Machine, the Morlocks below slave to keep the Eloi above content. As in that story, the pampered well-off should beware.

Ruben Östlund: ‘I worry that left-wing people misunderstand Marx’Opens in new window ]

Östlund’s film does not have the rigour of Lindsay Anderson’s If..., but both have the same rambling quality and, though more protracted than Malcolm McDowell’s machine-gunning of his public school, the ultimate reversal here is also undercut by its inevitability. That final act does, however, allow Dolly de Leon, hitherto invisible on the lower decks, to steal the film as her character clarifies what gifts matter when the comforts of wealth are stripped away. Her performance closes off a hilarious, elegantly shot, hungrily acted film that just about earns the adjective “Swiftian”. The Dean himself was not always subtle.

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke, a contributor to The Irish Times, is Chief Film Correspondent and a regular columnist