Writer’s note: The second paragraph of this article (just below the first image) contains a basic outline of the film’s premise. There are no spoilers that weren’t already inferred in the film’s own trailer. However, if you want to completely avoid potential spoilers, skip over the second paragraph.
Every year there are countless films outside of the mainstream, many of which deliver unique stories, unusual structures and complex ideas. Sadly, these films go largely unnoticed by the majority of audiences, as they rarely receive distribution beyond the film festival circuit. Thankfully, the award season can provide some assistance in this regard, as these smaller films gain mainstream attention through their accolades. With that extra push, audiences get the opportunity to discover films and filmmakers they may not have heard of otherwise. This year, the most talked about of these films is Swedish filmmaker Ruben Östlund’s Triangle of Sadness (2022), a satirical black comedy about a handful of rich socialites meeting for an eventful pleasure cruise.
The main story introduces us to Carl (Harris Dickinson), a young male model struggling to book a job. His girlfriend Yaya (Charlbi Dean) is also a model, but her work is entirely based on her instagram and social media presence. Her overwhelming success is a sore point for Carl, as she makes far more money than he does, yet he’s still expected to pay for their dinners. This leads to an argument over gender roles, thus putting a strain on their relationship and makes them question how they perceive each other. Things get even more complicated once they arrive at the pleasure cruise (booked by Yaya), as they meet an odd assortment of rich people, all with their own eccentricities, beliefs and perspectives, regarding how and why they make their money. All the political philosophising is drowned out by the pleasure cruise itself taking a tragic turn, which may or may not be by their own design.
As you can probably tell, Triangle of Sadness is about as bizarre as narrative films can get (as far as storytelling structure goes). There isn’t really a central concept, idea or plot that can be easily explained, as the events just unfold without any indication as to where it’s all going. This lack of clarity forces the viewer to give full attention, as the audience is desperately trying to decipher what is happening. There is some assistance on a structural level, as the film is broken into three very distinct acts, punctuated by Tarantino-esque chapter headings. This helps streamline the seemingly unrelated series of events, giving them a connected feel as far as the thematics go.
With that in mind, the clear three act structure highlights the narratives strengths and weaknesses in equal measure. As soon as each sequence begins, our attention is immediately grabbed by the new setting and heightened tension, creating a foreboding yet hilarious sense of dread. That feeling is complimented by the quirky character interactions, all of which keep the viewer on edge in a wonderfully entertaining way. Unfortunately, this kind of tension does need to be eventually broken for it to feel satisfying, which it rarely does. The uneasy feeling keeps building and building and building, with boredom setting in. Thankfully, our interest is re-engaged whenever the setting changes, but this does result in the film feeling like it travels through peaks and valleys.
Sadly, the inconsistent engagement makes it difficult for the viewer to actually figure out what the overall point of the film is. Granted, Triangle of Sadness isn’t the kind of film that gives easy answers, so it’s perfectly fine to expect the audience to do a little extra work. However, once the viewer has figured out the thematic messaging, there’s really not much nuance to it. There’s an attempt to make it feel nuanced by adding in extra layers of confusion, but the viewer will eventually make sense of it all, only to find there are no new thematic points being made. In a weird way, this is the main reason which can sink a film like Triangle of Sadness. Specifically, it presents itself as an incredibly complex work of art, but underneath the presentation it’s not nearly as clever as it appears.
Thankfully, an incredibly talented cast is on hand to bring out the film’s best qualities. Woody Harrelson is of course the big name at the centre of the film’s marketing, but amazingly, he is overshadowed by the lesser known names. This isn’t to say Harrelson’s work isn’t fantastic, but more so that the rest of the cast matches the screen legends considerable talents. Special attention must be paid to Harris Dickinson, and Charlbi Dean, both of whom bring a perfect mix of vapid self obsession and vulnerable sympathy. The best performance is undoubtedly given by Dolly de Leon, who effortlessly exudes intimidation, fairness and terror in a wonderfully hilarious (and unnerving) fashion. Across the board, the cast elevates Triangle of Sadness to a worthwhile watch.
Most interestingly, Triangle of Sadness leaves a lasting impression which greatly affects the viewing experience. Sure, a film’s final moments stays with viewers long after the credits have rolled, but Triangle of Sadness has an ending which reverberates back through the entire film. Unfortunately, it creates a negative effect, as the last shot leaves very little in the way of clarity. Granted, films with open endings can be truly magnificent, but it only works if the open ended conclusion ties back to the film’s main theme. Triangle of Sadness had the perfect opportunity to end this way, but it adds one additional moment just to have another layer of unnecessary confusion.
Despite the many failings of Triangle of Sadness, it’s still a film worthy of attention. Cinema will never progress if we don’t allow strange, confusing or experimental works to have their moment in the sun, so we shouldn’t let Triangle of Sadness restrict the next art film from hitting big. In most cases, these kinds of films end up being genius, it’s just a shame that Triangle of Sadness wasn’t, because it definitely had the potential to be so.
Best way to watch it: Stoned.