Ruben Östlund’s filmography is filled with works that use dark humour to expose the hypocrisy of modern society. Taking audiences through his funhouse of mirrors, the talented director ensures even the most miniscule flaw is visible for all to see. In his latest satirical work, Triangle of Sadness, which won the Palme d’Or at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival, he gleefully takes aim at wealth and excess.

Swimming in familiar waters that one expects from an Östlund’s film, Triangle of Sadness touches on several themes, including class, the fragility of the male ego and race to name a few, that have made his previous works, such as Play, Force Majeure, and The Square, so enjoyable. Rather than dipping his toes in to give the audience a feel for the temperature, the director jumps in with all the subtly of a cannonball in a crowded pool.

Östlund’s satire wastes no time in tattooing his characters with hypocritical ink. One just needs to observe the way model Yaya (Charlbi Dean, who tragically passed away a few months ago) is introduced in the film, walking down with a catwalk with the words “cynicism masquerading as optimism” on the screen behind her, for proof of this. Yaya declares herself to be a nice and caring person, while simultaneously admitting that she is so skilled at the art of manipulation that she no longer recognizes when she is trying to control a situation. While this talent helps her as an “influencer,” turning her constant need for Instagram worthy photos into free gifts like the luxury cruise she and her fellow model boyfriend Carl (Harris Dickinson) are on, it is starting to cause problems in her romantic life.

After an argument over the proper etiquette for paying a dinner bill erupts in to a larger a discussion about money and gender, Carl and Yaya hope that the free cruise will make their bond stronger. Despite claiming he wants them to be equals, and buck traditional male/female roles, Carl’s insecurities immediately surface aboard the luxury yacht. Surrounded by ultra-rich passengers that range from a Russian oligarch to British arms dealers to a wealthy app coder, the mere sight of Yaya saying hello to an attractive crew member is enough to light the wick of his candle of paranoia.

Triangle of Sadness

Carl’s need to exert some level of dominance over others, specifically Yaya and the handsome staffer, is a trait that many of the passengers on the ship seem to possess. It is on the yacht where Östlund joyously places the super-rich on a skewer to be roasted. Always needing to be the centre of everything, the wealthy guests not only nitpick frivolous things, but also try to flex their power by making demands of the crew that could put the whole ship in danger. The latter of which comes to fruition when one request leads to a domino of events that will not only see the passengers getting sick, but also being marooned on an island.

While the comical sequence of passengers enduring “sea sickness” at the same time, complete with projectile vomiting and overflowing feces, will be forever etched in one’s mind, it both exposes the joys and flaws of Östlund’s film. On one hand it, the director knows that there is something inherently fun about seeing obnoxious and privileged individuals get their comeuppance. However, in overexaggerating the experience, making the it a horror film of sort for the 1% of society, the director’s farce becomes messy instead of biting.

This messiness is especially evident when, among all the bodily fluid chaos, the ship’s alcoholic captain (Woody Harrelson) and Dimitry (Zlatko Buric), a wealthy passenger who seems to have both his wife and his mistress on the cruise, get into a drunken debate about socialism. Using the captain as the surrogate voice from above, condemning the sins of the rich as they endure a form of hell, Östlund’s film gets overtly preachy at times with many of its sermons falling on the deaf ears of both the passengers and the audience.

Östlund’s social commentary is most effective in the latter half of the film when several of the passengers are stranded on an island. In these sections one sees a reversal of power and gender roles as low-level ship crew member Abigail (Dolly De Leon, in a scene-stealing turn) becomes the main provider for the survivors. Here Triangle of Sadness not only allows the complicate nature of the characters’ bonds to breathe and evolve, but also reinforces the way the rich will still expect to be on top of the food chain even when relying on the generosity of others to survive.

While most of the characters remain oblivious to their own self-centeredness, Östlund’s portrayal of Abigail, including her constant awareness of the fleeting nature of her power, is fascinating to watch. Though one wishes the film would have delved into this arc more, instead of overindulging in the potty humour, there is more than enough here to rise Triangle of Sadness above its sloppier moments. The ending alone will have one contemplating the roles we get stuck in within society long after the final credits roll. For all its scathing moments Triangle of Sadness seems acutely aware that, regardless of how much feces hits the fan, deep down little will change among the rich.