Sunday, March 5, 2023

Eat the Rich

Film: Triangle of Sadness
Format: Streaming video from Hulu Plus on various players.

Every year, I have good intentions of watching as many of the Oscar movies that are relevant to me before the ceremony as possible. I usually fail pretty miserably and am still struggling to complete the short list at the end of the year (or even in January, as happened this year). So, I was excited to see Triangle of Sadness appear on Hulu the other day, because it was another one to cross off the list, putting me at more than half of the Best Picture nominees with a few weeks still to go. That’s pretty good for me.

I went into this completely cold. I knew nothing about it, and didn’t even know that this is a comedy. It is, but it’s going to take us some time to get there. It starts as a sort of ugly romance between two very superficial people. We’re going to be dealing with Carl (Harris Dickinson) and Yaya (Charlbi Dean), who are both professional models. Yaya is also an influencer, which is a big part of how the two of them live. What we learn early on is that the two of them are a couple, but it’s in large part for show. Yaya, despite making more money than Carl, expects him to pay for everything. We also learn that Yaya is with Carl in large part because it helps her get more followers on Instagram. Her eventual goal—her “way out of this life”—is to snag a very wealthy husband and live as a trophy wife, a fate that Carl decides he will save her from.

It's when the second act starts that things get really interesting. Carl and Yaya are on a yacht trip for the staggeringly wealthy, a trip they have gotten for free because of her success as an influencer. Most of the people on board are older and everyone is unbelievably, staggeringly rich—there’s a Rolex shop on the yacht, as well as a jewelry store. It also has a perpetually inebriated captain (Woody Harrelson) and is essentially run by Paula (Vicki Berlin). She tells the crew at the beginning of the voyage that they should do everything that they are asked—that their answer should always be “yes” no matter what they are asked of the guests.

This is where we are going to see just how much privilege actually exists in this people. Carl, seeing Yaya mildly flirting with someone working on the ship, complains to Paula that one of the workers was on deck without his shirt on, and the man is summarily fired. It’s here that we are going to be introduced to a few other people, namely Dimitry (Zlatko Burić), who is a fertilizer salesman made wealthy in late 1980s Soviet states and Jarmo (Henrik Dorsin), a tech multi-millionaire who is extremely rich but also lonely.

The yacht becomes a comedy of errors, starting when the captain demands that the captain’s meal—the one time he’ll come into contact with the passengers—happen on Thursday despite there being a severe weather warning for that day. This is compounded when one of the passengers demands that the entire crew take time off and go swimming, which spoils a part of the meal for the evening. The result is a wave of terrible seasickness and diarrhea, which causes the ship’s sewer system to overflow. Through all of this, the captain and Dimitry argue back and forth over the ship’s Tannoy system about the relative merits of capitalism versus Marxism. And then, in the morning, the ship is attacked by pirates.

In the third act of the film, a few survivors from the attack on the yacht are washed up on a beach. These include Carl, Yaya, Dimitry, Jarmo, Paula, ship worker Nelson (Jean-Christophe Folly), and Therese (Iris Berben). Therese is a stroke survivor who has little mobility and can only repeat the same German phrase over and over. Soon after, a lifeboat from the yacht hits the shore as well, containing fresh water, some food, and Abigail (Dolly de Leon), a maid from the yacht. It is soon evident that Abigail is the only person on the island who has any survival skills, and the balance of power shifts as Abigail takes over, essentially ruling over the collection of privileged people and workers whose skills are no longer relevant.

Triangle of Sadness is very clearly a social critique about the wealthy and the people who do all of the work. Carl and Yaya have no skills other than looking pretty and are rewarded at ridiculous levels for it. Dimitry, who tells everyone “I sell shit,” has no skills other than that, and Jarmo’s fortune exists specifically because of technology; outside of that world he is essentially useless. Paula’s job has been to do nothing but make sure that the most ridiculous request of the top 1% of the top 1% is carried out immediately. Nelson at least has a skill, but without an engine room to work in, his skills are worthless. Even in their new situation on the island, they are fully expecting to be taken care of by Abigail, since that was her job and they can’t conceive of a world where their needs aren’t immediately handled.

Perhaps the clearest moment of this happens when the body of Vera (Sunnyi Melles) washes up on shore. Dimitry, who was traveling with her, finds her body and cries over her, but is also very careful to immediately remove her jewelry and stash it in his pockets. At the end, when the sexual and survival politics have finally played out, our privileged few still can’t seem to understand what has happened, having been sheltered from any consequences for their entire lives.

I’ve said in the past that I find it difficult in many cases to find a way into a movie where I have no one to root for, and Triangle of Sadness is that kind of movie. Everyone in this movie is terrible. But, everyone in this movie has terrible consequences that happen to them as well, often specifically because they are terrible people. Watching this is not dissimilar to finding out that some famous person you genuinely dislike has had some tragedy befall them. There are moments of guilt in reveling in that feeling, but it’s impossible to deny that feeling as well.

Why to watch Triangle of Sadness: Bad things happening to terrible people is funny.
Why not to watch: There’s no one to root for.


  1. I remember there was more than a bit of surprise when the Oscar noms were announced that this managed the nominations that it did; I dunno if you had any thoughts toward any of those, or if nothing in particular came up (or if you're saving any thoughts for your Oscar Got It Wrong segments)?

    I haven't had any real desire to see this, even after it similarly inexplicably won the Palme d'Or last year (Ruben Ostlund's 2nd, putting him in a rare group indeed); that it also swung a Best Picture nom and thus will force me to watch it at some point in the future does not make it any more inviting, largely because the only thing I'd heard about it, which you covered, was that the satire was bleedingly obvious and there was basically nothing else to this than that. Hopefully I'm not too begrudging when I do finally get around to it.

    1. There is a certain pleasure in watching bad things happen to really privileged people who never have bad things in a mundane sense happen to them--to see them have to deal with real-world terribleness that the rest of us see on a daily basis. There's a reason that everyone wealthy in this film is white and that many of the servant class (including Abigail) are not white.

      Yeah, it's not subtle. Sometimes, not subtle is okay, though--there's a sardonic joy in watching someone who regularly uses your or my yearly salary on tips and trinkets have epic and violent diarrhea mixed with sea sickness, to see them just...sliding around in someone else's sewage.

      It might not be deep, but in the moment, it's satisfying.

  2. I'm still unsure about seeing this as while I did love Force Majeure. I thought Ostlund's last film The Square was good but overrated.

    1. I liked this, but I'm not as in love with it as I want to be. It's a very strange choice for its nominatons--I like the screenplay nom, but I"m iffy on the other two.

  3. The Captain's Dinner scene is hands down the grossest thing I saw on screen last year. I liked this, but didn't love it. It felt like two different movies.

    1. I agree--it does feel like at least two movies. The third act is something entirely new, bringing in a couple of entirely new characters, one of whom becomes the driving force of the narrative. It's definitely odd in that respect.

      I'm not sure the Captain's Dinner eclipsed parts of Crimes of the Future for me, but it's definitely nasty.