Monday February 27, 2023
Movie Review: Triangle of Sadness (2022)
J.M. Barrie didn’t get a writing credit for this? What a rip.
Barrie, the author of “Peter Pan,” also wrote a 1902 play called “The Admirable Crichton,” in which a wealthy family and their butler, Crichton, are shipwrecked on an island, and since the butler knows how to do everything, and they know how to do nothing, the social roles reverse. He becomes powerful, they become servants. At the end, he’s about the marry the lord’s daughter when they’re rescued and social roles, as they say, regress to the mean. It’s what the “Swept Away” movies became but with rough sex. Barrie didn’t get a writing credit there, either.
That said, “Crichton” and “Swept Away” make more sense than this.
I was enjoying it for a bit, then kept not buying it. Writer-director Ruben Ostlund seems to be saying something important about class, race, gender roles; and then it just gets silly. He wants to make his points and makes them regardless of any kind of logic. Eventually I began thinking: “They gave this the Palme d’Or? And Oscar nominations for best picture and director?”
Carl and Yaya (Harris Dickinson and Charlbi Dean) are a beautiful supermodel couple who aren’t happy. Or they fight over silly things. Or … actually I like what they fight over—but, given the state of the world, it is silly. They fight over the fact that she never picks up the check. In the modeling world, she makes three times what he does, and yet gender roles still determine he’s the one who pays. Well, she determines it as well. The check comes and she stares into her phone, then absent-mindedly says “thank you” to Carl. I’m curious if it makes her feel more womanly to be pampered while it makes him feel more manly to take care of things. Either way, it is something I’ve noticed—women often seem gone when the check arrives—so I liked this opening.
Yaya is not just a fashion model but an “influencer,” with however many millions of followers on Instagram, and she gets free shit to promote all the time. That’s how they wind up on the luxury cruise, where class issues are immediately underlined. In one scene, Paula (Vicki Berlin), the short-haired blonde cruise director, exults her team with a rah-rah speech to cater to the whims of every guest. You’re feeling sorry for them, and maybe her, when Ostlund cuts to the mostly brown cleaning staff working a lower deck. There’s always a lower deck. (Cf. “Parasite.”) One thing people on all decks have in common? They spend a lot of time staring dumbly into smartphones.
The guests on the cruise are the worst people in the world: a Russian oligarch named Dimitry (Zlatko Buric), who made his fortune with fertilizer and introduces himself with the well-worn, self-amused line “I sell shit”; his idiot wife Vera (Sunnyi Melles); an old British couple, Winston and Clementine, who talk up the great work they did for world peace—which turns out to be selling grenades. Meanwhile, Paula can’t get the drunk captain out of his quarters. For a while I wondered if it’d be a Carlton the Doorman thing and we’d never see him. I also wondered if it was a comment on the Trump era (no one’s running the ship) or just our current awful internet era (no one’s minding the store).
The rah-rah speech comes to haunt the staff, and ultimately the guests, when the oligarch’s wife insists that one staff member, Alicia (Alicia Eriksson), get into the jacuzzi with her. Then she insists all staff partake in the fun. She wants to make some grand point about how they’re all equal, and everyone has to go along because they’re not. Worse, when the kitchen help leave for their mandatory, joyless slide into the ocean, the chef fears the food will turn. Which seems to be what happens. That night, as the Captain (Woody Harrelson) makes a first reluctant appearance at dinner, and the boat is pitched in a storm, most guests get sick. And there's much dysentery.
How much of the dialogue was improv? It feels real—both natural and not particularly interesting. The drunken debate between the socialist captain (Woody Harrelson) and the capitalist Russian oligarch did nothing for me. Pulling out a Noam Chomsky book to make your points feels like a Woody Harrelson move rather than whoever this captain is supposed to be. It took me out of the movie rather than deeper into it.
Then we get a distant shot of the ship while Somali pirates gather in the foreground. That’s what happens when no one is running the ship. Your vulnerabilities are exacerbated. Question: Why do the pirates toss the grenade? Isn’t the point to take over the ship rather than destroy it? Instead, Winston and Clementine pick up the grenade, slowly recognize what it is, boom. I confess: I rolled my eyes. It wasn’t enough that Ostlund named the couple after the Churchills, we had to get this idiot moment of karma.
Anyway, that’s why a handful of people wind up on a deserted island, and Abigail (Dolly De Leon), a cleaning woman, takes over like the admirable Crichton. She’s the only one with survival skills. Via IMDb:
In a podcast interview, De Leon said her character Abigail was supposed to be a male mechanic of the yacht, but when Ostlund pitched the film to his students, one suggested that it would be more interesting if the character was a woman.
Give that student an F. There’s a lot I found unbelievable on the island. These are privileged people who would be looking at their watches, wondering why they weren’t already rescued, and I don’t remember any of that. More, when you lose social constructs and class distinctions, you don’t just revert to survival of the fittest but the strongest. Abigail may have known how to catch fish, and start fires, but she was little. She needed to team up with someone to enforce the new hierarchy. We don’t get that. There wasn’t even a shift when Jarmo (Henrik Dorson), the computer coder, kills an animal with a rock, creating his own food source. Hey, we can do this now. Hey, we don’t need you now.
And I know these people are useless, but no one thinks to rub two sticks together? Has no one watched cartoons? It doesn’t have to work; I just wanted the attempt.
The final joke
Interplay between class and sex comes up a lot. There’s Carl’s jealousy of the shirtless Greek worker—and inadvertently getting him fired because he was shirtless on deck. There’s also the role-playing sex game (laborer, housewife) Carl and Yaya play in their cabin. Finally, on the island, Carl becomes concubine to Abigail. He leaves the supermodel for the cleaning woman. Sure, Ruben.
The final joke is it’s not a deserted island; there’s a luxury resort on the other side, which Yaya and Abigail find when they go hiking. Great news for Yaya, less so for Abigail. Away from the island, she’s a cleaning woman. Before they take the elevator up, Abigail says she has to go to the bathroom. Why does Yaya wait? Stockholm syndrome? This woman made you beg for fish, and took your man. I’d be running for that elevator. Instead, Yaya sits down, talks about how Abigail can become her assistant, while, behind her, Abigail picks up a large rock. Cut to Carl running breathlessly through the woods. And that’s the end of the movie.
Is it the lady or the tiger? How about who cares.
This is a poor follow-up for Ostlund after “Force Majeure” and “The Square,” his great takes on male cowardice and courage in modern society. Much honored, though. Do we all get our due after we deserve it?