Winning the Palm d’Or once is an extraordinary achievement but winning it twice is… well it’s pretty hard but it’s perhaps not as rare as you might expect. Of the 82 films to have won the award, about sixteen were directed by people who have won twice, meaning that there are about eight people in the exclusive two timers club. Some of these people are the luminaries you would expect to be in such a class: Francis Ford Coppola, Michael Haneke, and Shōhei Imamura. Others are less well known but make a more sense when you understand Cannes history and the tastes of European intellectuals like Ken Loach, the Dardenne brothers, and Emir Kusturica. And then there are a pair of Scandanavians whose names have kind of faded over time. There was the Swede Alf Sjöberg who’s now mostly known as a mentor for Ingmar Bergman and who partly joined the club on a technicality because the wacky jury at the first Cannes Festival decided to give out the top prize in an eleven-way tie. More pertinently there was the Danish filmmaker Bille August, who won for back to back projects with Pelle the Conqueror and The Best Intentions. Granted I haven’t seen either of these movies, they could actually be super deserving picks, but… they haven’t really been on the forefront of film though, especially not the second of the two. I bring this up because there has been a new member of the double-Palme club: Swedish filmmaker Ruben Östlund, who won in 2017 film The Square and now once again with his latest film Triangle of Sadness. Will Östlund be another Coppola or another August? Well let’s start by seeing if Triangle of Sadness was deserving in and of itself.
The title of Triangle of Sadness refers to a spot on the forehead leading into the nose which is said to make people look gloomy and the film’s initial point of view character, a male model named Carl (Harris Dickinson), is advised to “fix” with botox. And from there we are given a deep dive into the world of one percenter decadence, firstly by being introduced to the dynamics between Carl and his girlfriend Yaya (Charlbi Dean), who is also a model. Their relationship does not exactly seem serious and to some extent they’re together because their relationship helps social media engagement, and as we meet them they seem to spend a lot of their time engaged in awkward and inane power struggles over nonsense. We then follow them onto a high-end luxury cruise on a yacht captained by a reclusive captain named Thomas Smith (Woody Harrelson), who can often be found locked in his room drinking and listening to “The Internationale.” Other notable passengers include a middle aged Russian named Dimitry (Zlatko Burić) who made millions selling “shit” (guano) and his eccentric wife Vera (Sunnyi Melles), a stroke victim only capable of saying one sentence over and over named Therese (Iris Berben), and other weirdos like an elderly couple who got rich selling arms. Serving them are people like the overly upbeat manager Paula (Vicki Berlin) and a maid named Abigale (Dolly de Leon). The cruise itself is rife with dysfunction, mostly caused by needing to cater to the stupidest whims of the passengers on board and eventually things go awry and many of these characters will deal with a role reversal as a result.
Triangle of Sadness is a film with three distinct acts marked by title cards. The first largely serves to introduce the audience to Carl and Yaya and their awkward gender power dynamic, which is a topic that’s been there in most of Östlund’s movies and was the centerpiece of his breakout film Force Majeure. However this seems like a somewhat odd place to start given that these two are rather minor characters in the second act of the film and are important but still not central characters in the third act. I think Östlund highlights them because they are sort of representative of the petite bourgeoisie here and are thus among the more logical entry points for your average arthouse viewer: wealthy enough to have some idea of luxury but not really as powerful as most of the people on the boat in the second act. That second act is where the film really goes to town on “the rich,” making them look like vapid fools who casually wield their power with no forethought for consequences even when they view themselves to be enlightened. That also goes for the ship’s captain, who is in theory a Marxist whose aware of the inequalities that happen around him but who seems more interested in arguing about that in theory than doing anything to actually help anyone and causes plenty of destruction himself. Think of him as an avatar for your average Twitter user. And the film is also pretty misanthropic about the poor for that matter as most of the actual lower class workers here that have actual speaking roles are either asskissers like Paula who simply enable the rich or they’re people like Abigale who prove to be every bit as corrupt as the rich are when given some power themselves.
I must say, in recent years we’ve seen a bit of an uptick in overt class conciseness in cinema, which I must say is something I have slightly mixed feelings about. It was invigorating when Parasite gave us a parable about wealth inequality but the characters in that movie weren’t, like, getting into onscreen arguments about Marx and Lenin. We’re also seeing this in some of the lower brow genres like horror films, where we’re now being treated to stuff like The Invitation and The Menu which also seem to offer elaborate metaphors for class warfare. Most directly, Triangle of Sadness seems to have been beaten to the punch a bit by the HBO mini-series “The White Lotus,” which also offered a class portrait within the hospitality industry and all the power imbalances inherent in that. Simply as a movie it’s a little hard to do much with Triangle of Sadness without engaging in its politics as it doesn’t really tell much of a logical story if you aren’t looking at the whole thing as something of a Buñuelian contrivance. The logistics of the last act in particular do not make much sense if you apply any scrutiny to it as a literal sequence of events and its three acts really don’t flow from one to the other in a terribly smooth cinematic fashion.
I must also say that while I found the film consistently witty it wasn’t making me laugh uproariously. The film’s widely publicized central set-piece in which many passengers get sick and start vomiting uncontrollably has a certain chaotic energy to it but at the end of the day I don’t personally find vomit inherently hilarious and I’m not sure that this is really as politically biting as it wants you to think it is beyond the fact that its bringing the rich and powerful down a peg, pretty much at random. I would also question if mocking the one percent is even a terribly daring thing to do in this day and age. Comparatively I feel like Östlund’s digs at upper middle class masculinity in Force Majeure and the intellectual class in The Square were much more daring and, frankly, relatable than what he’s doing here. I can see a lot of what’s going on here speaking a lot to the black tie crowd at an event like Cannes but I must say, my own experience with people at this level of elite is kind of limited and the dynamics struck me as a bit less recognizable. So, going back to my opening question, should this have been the movie to win Östlund his second Palme d’Or? Nah, I’m thinking they could have just left him with the one prize for The Square and they would have been good. But having said that, this movie was hardly an uninteresting experience, and it’s definitely one worth giving a shot to see what your mileage is with it.
***1/2 out of Five