By Gen Terblanche22 May 2023
Triangle of Sadness: The have-nots vs the have-yachts
Balenciaga! H&M! Is this a grumpy brand, or a smiley brand?
In 2022 a clip showing shirtless male models rapidly switching between their fierce high fashion runway scowls, and their happy, sunny catalogue modelling looks swept social media. The source? Swedish writer-director Ruben Östlund’s film Triangle of Sadness. That scene is just the tiniest nibble from the film’s feast of deliciously dark satire, which earned Ruben an eight-minute standing ovation from critics at its debut in Cannes in May 2022, along with the Palme d’Or.
From a runway to a shipwreck
Swing out the gangway, we’re on board for the funniest scenes of maritime disaster since that guy boinged off the propeller in Titanic.
We sneak onto a luxury charter yacht catering to the pampered international super-rich with two hangers on: Carl (Harris Dickison), the naive red-haired male model from the H&M vs Balenciaga scene, and his runway supermodel girlfriend, Yaya (late South African actress Charlbi Dean). Carl’s just tagging along with Yaya, who’s got a free ride in exchange for promoting the charter business through her side hustle as an influencer. And she certainly keeps her end of the bargain, fake-eating spaghetti, oiling and sunning herself on deck, and shamelessly peacocking all day long. This is business, baby.
Carl and Yaya are an awkward fit onboard, with only their extreme beauty to punch their ticket. The rest of the yacht’s crew and passengers make up a snapshot of society. At the top, those like tech entrepreneur Jarmo (Henrik Dorsin), self-made Russian fertiliser kingpin Dimitry (Zlatko Burić) and his wife Vera (Sunnyi Melles), who can afford to have jars of chocolate spread flown out to the yacht by helicopter. In the middle, Captain Thomas Smith (Woody Harrelson) and chief steward Paula (Vikki Berlin) and her staff, who cater to every whim the rich express. Right at the bottom are the people who perform the hard labour that makes life onboard possible, from working in the engine room like Nelson (Jean-Christophe Folly) the mechanic, to housekeeping and toilet scrubbing like Abigail (Dolly De Leon).
But in a spectacular tornado of vomit, unspeakable filth, stampeding panic and political dogma, this world is swept away. And a new world washes up on the shore of a tropical island.
This is where Triangle of Sadness gleefully dives into how power structures are built. Abigail bucks at Paula’s attempt to continue the shipboard order. The pampered rich and their middlemen have nothing Abigail needs now – on this island, a fancy watch that costs more than she could earn in a lifetime is suddenly worthless.
After years of having her face ground in how ungrateful the rich can be, Abigail is quick to hammer home the fact that she’s holding all the cards. She alone provides the skills for catching food and building fire. Once that’s acknowledged, she controls the distribution of goods, protects her share through the threat of violence, and rewards those who back her authority. And then the negotiations start as everyone else jockeys for position – including those like Carl who always feel entitled to more, and now have to figure out a way to get it.
If you have the stomach for it, the movie’s crown jewel of dark comedy arrives on a gilded platter during the Captain’s Dinner, which brings together a storm at sea, a menu of tortuously convoluted cuisine, sea sickness, food poisoning, and a total meltdown of the yacht’s sewerage system, that takes up 15 spectacular minutes.
At least two parts of this disaster could be attributed to Vera’s whim when she demands that every single member of the crew leave their duties for a plunge in the sea so that they can live in the moment, like she does. Vera gets her comeuppance, though, as she helplessly pinballs back and forth across the floor of her cabin’s bathroom in her underwear, moaning with sickness and drenched in her own filth.
The shipboard disaster scenes were filmed over 13 days on a tilting set built on a gimbal. Production designer Josefin Åsberg and her team went overboard on the details, down to giving different characters different coloured vomit depending on what they’d eaten or drunk, and fine-tuning what an explosion of raw sewage would look like. And makeup gave the cast increasingly paler, greener complexions. But the master stroke might have been having the “vomit” mixture delivered via little nozzles in the performers’ mouths, leading to tubes controlled by the effects crew. The cast were not in control here, so there’s always a moment of shock or panic before someone blasts off onscreen.
Triangle of Sadness seems to have made Ruben Östlund the King of Cannes, since he’s back this year as the Jury President for the May 2023 Cannes Film Festival. And what is the Triangle of Sadness, exactly? It’s that little frowny bit between your eyebrows and above your nose.
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