Triangle of Triangles: Thematic Depth in Ruben Östlund’s 'Triangle of Sadness'

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Triangle of Sadness blows all the doors off: it's rude, crude, over the top and on the nose. In the hands of a lesser director, this might be too difficult to abide.

Rowan Hand

Triangle of Triangles: Thematic Depth in Ruben Östlund’s *Triangle of Sadness *

In principle, I prefer to hold films to a certain amount of road testing–ideally years–before I would presume to refer to them as “classics”. That said, giving credit to Ruben Östlund’s previous two efforts, Force Majeure and The Square, I have no such qualms about placing Triangle of Sadness into this category.

Triangle of Sadness follows model-influencers Carl and Yaya as they flit from a fashion show in Stockholm to a luxury cruise. However, the boat experiences an unforeseen tragedy that forces its survivors, Carl and Yaya included, to fend for themselves on an ostensibly unpopulated island.

While Force Majeure stewed in its own awkwardness and The Square, its phenomenal midpoint set-piece notwithstanding, exercised a calm, metaphorical approach to its broader thematic elements, Triangle of Sadness blows all the doors off: it is rude, crude, over the top, on the nose, and wrong.

In the hands of a lesser director, such aspects of the movie might be too difficult to abide. The overarching triumph of Triangle of Sadness is its ability to compensate for the bluntness of its farcical, even scatological, aspects with truths ranging from the frustrating to the disturbing to the tragic. Reality, suggests Östlund, is no less vulgar.

The Triangle Motif

Early in the film, male model Carl is told by a casting agent to relax his “Triangle of Sadness,” the space between the nose and the eyebrows that bunches up when the face appears tense or frustrated.

This is the first and only time that any triangle is explicitly mentioned, but structurally we see the triangle motif recur. The film has three distinct stories in three locations, each with its own act structure: Carl and Yaya, the Yacht, and the Island.

There are too many themes and clever digs at society to analyze in a relatively short article, so at the expense of a few riotous jokes, I have chosen here to focus on three main, interlocking Triangles of Sadness: Money, Class, and Love.

Triangle 1: Money

In the first story, “Carl and Yaya,” money creates friction between models Carl (Harris Dickinson) and Yaya (the late Charlbi Dean). They both clearly struggle with money, while their jobs force them to rub elbows with the wealthy and powerful. Their approaches differ: money is a constant stress for Carl, who is upset that they can’t have a neutral discussion about it; Yaya sees no problem with casually manipulating others to pay her way.

In the second story, “The Yacht,” we are presented with an inordinate number of ostentatious, useless displays of money (as if the Yacht itself weren’t enough), from helicoptering in jars of Nutella to Vera (Sunnyi Melles), a wealthy Russian woman, ordering the entire crew to halt their work and “go for a swim” in the middle of the day, to Jarmo (Henrik Dorsin), a cashed-out, cashed-up Tech Bro, offering to buy women at the bar (Yaya plus Vera’s daughter Ludmilla (Carolina Gynning)) Rolexes to impress them.

In the third story, “The Island,” money becomes thoroughly useless. On a deserted island, neither a Rolex nor a Patek will buy one a night’s sleep in the lifeboat. Only practical skills, like being able to hunt, fish, and start a fire matter in the wilderness; physical aggression becomes a legitimate currency, physical safety a priority.

A surface read of the story might consider this film a marxist critique of capitalism, but that would be too simplistic. Rather, the triangle of theory that exists is between marxism, the Captain (Woody Harrelson) as its primary avatar; capitalism, with Dimitry (Zlatko Buric), the Russian fertilizer magnate, its representative; and uncontrollable Acts of God , as Thérèse’s cries of “in den Wolken!” never cease to remind us.

Each of these positions is subject to self-reflection and shift throughout the film, as we see with the marxist Captain acknowledging the irony that he pilots a $250 million luxury yacht and how Dimitry, once on the island, is quick to quote Karl Marx when it benefits him.

Each of these points of the triangle work in concert for the worst possible outcome. The marxist deliberates excessively and delays the proceedings: the Captain changes the date of the dinner, thereby placing it in the middle of the storm; the capitalist flexes: Vera makes the crew go down the water slide, thereby letting the oysters spoil; we expect a swaying boat and spraying passengers... and then the pirates arrive. Even a marxist boat is susceptible to an Act of God.

Needless to say, Triangle of Sadness skewers everything about money, never truly coming down on any page except one: money is inextricably tied with excrement. To wit, money is shit. Money comes from shit: Dimitry, in the fertilizer business, literally “sells shit”; the Captain refers to himself as a “shit Socialist” because he enables the antics of the wealthy; and money lets people shit on each other: the wealthy’s oyster-induced diarrhea tips out of the Yacht’s plumbing system during the storm, while the Cabin Crew flit about the high-level control systems so that the Filipino Cleaning Crew may rise from below decks, unseen, to scrub the floors. It is not unintentional that Abigail (Dolly de Leon), Toilet Manager aboard the Yacht, becomes Captain on the Island.

Triangle 2: Class

Carl and Yaya provide the audience with interesting avatars; they exist largely outside class, able to engage the world of the ultra-wealthy, yet their financial and romantic concerns humanize them to us. Yaya can’t afford dinner, and Carl definitely can’t afford a 28,000-euro engagement ring. Nevertheless, due to curious machinations of modern culture, Yaya’s position as a social media Influencer allows them to go on the cruise for free. On the other hand, Carl is consistently shown his place by the casting agents and the people running the fashion show, Furthermore, we are explicitly told in the opening scenes that as a male model he is worth less than the female models; presumably this is why it is emphasized that Yaya is an Influencer while Carl is not. We can empathize with his position as the underdog. We understand that Yaya is manipulating Carl and are grimly satisfied when she admits to doing so.

Other characters are painted more broadly. Clearly, the wealthy aboard the yacht represent the worst that capitalism has to offer; Dimitry tells us as much. The cabin crew work together as a collective and attempt to find a good outcome, echoing the Captain’s marxist leanings, yet their work is specifically to support a parasitic upper class, making a show of hopping over the Wealthy’s stream of shit before it gets out of control. The below-deck cleaning crew, of course, keeps everything functioning. They are treated reasonably well as long as they know their place and are, ideally, never seen. It bears repeating that the wealthy and the cabin crew are all Westerners (and white almost to a person) while the cleaning crew are all Filipino. The reader is free to connect the dots as to Östlund’s intention here.

It is not unreasonable to see that, metaphorically, everyone must deal with the excreta of the wealthy and different ways to do so yield different consequences. Most pertinently, on the Island, where money has no value, Abigail’s practical skills put her at the top of the heap. She can claim what she wants, whom she wants, and no one can debate her because her survival skills are, ostensibly, the key to everyone’s survival.

If we take Vera at her word that she was simply “born into this life” as a Wealthy excreter and assume that Abigail was born into a position of servility, then as Abigail gains status we must wonder how easily she can keep it. Abigail’s status shift may turn out to be ephemeral, merely a consequence of the castaways’ position on the Island.

As such, it is only natural that Abigail would want to protect her newfound respect. Abigail has a sense of power and legitimate contribution that she was previously disallowed on the basis of her ostensible class. It makes perfect sense that her upward migration would be savagely defended, as we see in the closing moments of the film.

The intentional cliffhanger of the film shows us that Yaya is not immune to understanding; she has learned a lesson, likes Abigail, and is willing to overlook the friction over Carl. She genuinely wants to help. Nevertheless, by offering Abigail a position as her assistant, she does so in a patronizing, subordinating way. Östlund seems to suggest that progress is possible, but it will always be diluted, or perhaps poisoned, by the influence of our arbitrary social hierarchies.

Triangle 3: Love

It would be remiss for a film with “triangle” in the title not to introduce a love triangle.

In the initial story, Carl insists that he and Yaya should consider themselves equal in all respects, and Yaya counters by making an epic “are you fucking joking?” face, ripe for transformation into a GIF.

As Yaya says early on, she wants to know someone is able to take care of her. As the taxi driver (Jiannis Moustos) tells Carl, Carl must fight for Yaya or he will forever be her slave. Power dynamics exist and persist; it is pointless to suggest that everything can be equal all the time; Yaya and her priceless face know this intuitively. Yet it does not appear to be in Carl’s nature to fight back, as we see throughout the film. When he does try to defend himself, in the elevator or against the Shirtless Crew Member (Timoleon Gketsos), his attempts simply come out sideways: jealous, aggressive, cowed, any victory pyrrhic.

Recall the bet that Carl makes with Yaya in the first story: after Yaya matter-of-factly tells him that she is a model specifically to become a Trophy Wife and is just using him in the meantime, he tells her that he will make her love him, and it “will be real love, too.” With his low status and lack of power emphasized, we wonder just how Carl thinks he will pull this off.

Bizarrely, Carl gets his chance to take care of Yaya when he leans into his submissive role, becoming Abigail’s Trophy Husband on the Island. At first, Yaya is on board with the scheme: Carl may cavort with Abigail, under certain restrictions, as it benefits Yaya and Carl for him to do so. After all, she and he are models; they subsist by being objectified. Soon enough, however, Yaya determines that too much hanky-panky is happening in Captain Abigail’s private quarters and she confronts Carl and Abigail. Perhaps Carl has in fact managed to win Yaya’s love: all it took was turning himself out.

Only the extremity of the situation piques Yaya’s jealousy, which makes her reconsider her feelings for Carl. Arguably, her offer to Abigail of a subordinate position is an attempt to make peace while getting Carl. It presumes, however, that they will soon re-enter the real world. Abigail may have other plans.

At this point, the triangles of Love, Class, and Money converge. It is fitting that there is no true resolution. Östlund is correct: there are no easy answers. Nihilistic as this approach may be, the viewer comes away with some serious questions about privileges, love, and society on the whole.

Conclusion: in den Wolken

Stroke victim Therese is able only to say, “in den Wolken,” or “in the clouds,” a refrain she repeats like a Greek chorus, at varying degrees of volume and emotional intensity throughout the latter two stories.

It’s a rude awakening to think that we might all have our heads in the clouds. We are suspiciously unaware of the societal constructions that define how we live, how we love, how we think, and how we communicate. And yet we may all be living on our own apparently deserted islands, too absorbed in nonsense to check whether there is life on the other side of the hill.

Resistance to this examination is inevitable, and perhaps this explains some of the backlash toward the over-the-top aspects of Triangle of Sadness. The absurdity and farce of the film remind one of historical farces such as those of the Marx Brothers; keen viewers may note token reference to the fifth, most camera-shy of the brothers, Karl.

Ultimately, *Triangle of Sadness *challenges each of us to consider how fragile and arbitrary the constructs upon which we build our lives and within which we operate actually are. It encourages us to consider our own place with regard to Love, Money, and Class, how easily these could be upended, and what that might mean for our futures.

After all, there are real pirates on the waters.


Photo from TV Insider, 'Triangle of Sadness', [Available 10 January 2023]


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