There is a point where all good intentions in a storyline turn to dust, and that is when the said narrative stops respecting its characters, however vile they are. Caricature is always a slippery slope, and never more so than when addressing a topical issue so immensely and sinisterly global as is the wealthiest 1%.
In Ruben Östlund‘s Palme d’Or-winning Triangle Of Sadness (2022) satire turns to caricature pretty quickly, and offers us an array of humans so painfully vapid, vain, petty, greedy, and clueless about life, that I started to root for these horrible people to be given at least an ounce of screen dignity. Each allowed a single trait, which, however nasty, would be portrayed as three-dimensional.
To put it bluntly, this is not a Luis Buñuel, although it probably aimed to be.
The character of the Russian oligarch Dimitry might have irked me the most, although embodied by Zlatko Buric, a tremendous actor (watch him be brilliant in Nicolas Winding Refn‘s The Pusher), and most likely intended to be the film’s good-hearted relief. In trying to be the down-to-earth zone of the mega-rich zone, Dimitry comes out as a performance of a performance. Zig-zagging between completely unconvincing to too cleverly meta for this setting.
Even the one character that was fully fleshed-out, clearly the director/writer’s alter-ego, the Captain, played with glee by the always great Woody Harrelson, ended his screen time with a clichéd tirade in what was supposed to be the ideological centrepiece of the story. Which, in a nutshell, and as metaphor, is a straightforward tale of both beauty as currency and the corruptive power of money.
Obnoxious rich people and their influencer satellites, lounging aimlessly on an luxury yacht, waited on by a purposefully zombified staff (rebel ones sacked), in due course receive a painful taste of the real world. Faced with an utter lack of capabilities when it comes to survival in the wild, the necessity for the lowest in status to step in as their leader becomes obvious — as she is most equipped to lead the way. Dolly de Leon, as toilet assistant Abigail, is amusingly, and convincingly, on point.
And therein lies their comeuppance. Of sorts.
Until bearing the ring of power merely corrupts its new holder.
The last shot of the film may be its best one, but there is a lot of milage between the excellent beginning and excellent ending that was spent in not particularly thoroughly thought-out juxtapose of stereotypes and social-media-level pontificating. Hammering in the point that the Pharaoh-like social inequality worldwide will end in disaster could have been done infinitely more effectively with a significantly lighter touch.
There is one real-life tragedy connected with this film, that must be mentioned. And that is the devastating loss of a wonderful young actress, Charlbi Dean, who died shortly after the film’s premiere. In Triangle Of Sadness, she inhabited possibly the only character I actually believed in, the fashion model/IG influencer Yaya — so much did she give with a narrow scope to work with.
As an admirer of The Square (2017), which the director made with equal excess, but with more nuance and intricate detail, I understand how an ambitious project like this can become derailed by a very personal anger at the state of the world. Or maybe I am reading too much into the process, and the film simply went needlessly excessive and shambolic because it was not that well-structured, written and shaped, in the first place. Despite the excellent cast assembled, and an otherwise outstanding helmer.
The joke is on me though. The film’s success shows that it hit a nerve with both critics and audiences. My fear is that it hit the exact wrong one.
Author: ©Milana Vujkov