(Bloomberg) -- The latest cinematic critique of global inequality comes in the guise of an upstairs/downstairs comedy set on a luxury yacht.
Triangle of Sadness was written and directed by Ruben Ostlund and won this year’s prestigious Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. It begins, like the rest of Ostlund’s movies (Force Majeure, The Square), as an excruciating, albeit enjoyable, comedy of manners. When it devolves into something darker, the result is less penetrating than Ostlund might have preferred, morphing into a sex- and death-filled version of Gilligan's Island.
The movie, which is in theaters October 7, begins on land. Carl (Harris Dickinson) and Yaya (a nuanced Charlbi Dean, who died suddenly in August) are both professional models who—having reached their mid-20s—are nearing the end of their marketability.
Carl, earnest and less successful, has decided that their fading fortunes should result in financial parity in their romantic relationship; Yaya, clear eyed, has decided it means they should break up and find rich spouses. “The only way for me to get out of this life is to be someone’s trophy wife,” she says, forced to explain the obvious to an uncomprehending Carl.
And so, amidst an uncoupling that’s conscious on only one side, the couple—both “influencers”—accepts a free trip on a luxury sea voyage.
The yacht trip (exteriors were shot on the deck of Christina O, once the yacht of Aristotle Onassis) is meant to appeal to a comparatively discreet version of international rich: ones who wouldn’t be caught dead on a cruise ship but who might not have the means or inclination to charter their own mega yacht. Carl and Yaya are by far the youngest people there. Aside from the captain (played by a largely absent Woody Harrelson), the rest of the group consists of well-behaved, basically well-meaning people whose accumulation of vast wealth, Ostlund suggests, automatically makes them deserving of whatever misfortunes occur.
Meanwhile, two tiers of staff wait on the two-dozen or so guests. The first, led by a self-serious Paula (Vicki Berlin) is perky and all White: young, hyper-polite deckhands who serve Champagne, set up sun shades, and shuffle about in skirts and deck shoes as they smilingly try to accommodate the guests’ idiotic requests. The lower tier—those who clean the rooms, do the laundry, scrub the toilets—are all non-White, and largely unnoticed until tragedy strikes.
Ostlund never has much compassion for his cast; about midway through the film, he begins to torture them. Viewers’ enjoyment of what follows will depend almost entirely on their own ideas about comeuppance. Do weapons manufacturers deserve to be blown up by one of their own creations? Perhaps! Should a woman who profited from a post-Soviet manure monopoly be coated in sewage? Maybe?
At any rate (and given that it’s in the movie trailer, this is no great spoiler), once some of the guests and crew find themselves stranded on an island, karmic justice appears, at first, to have been meted out equally.
That’s until a faceless maid, Abigail (Dolly de Leon, who is far and away the film’s brightest light), emerges from anonymity to become leader of the motley crew of castaways.
What mercifully saves the movie from being a straight morality tale is Ostlund’s insistence that power structures will remain basically the same, regardless of who’s at the top and who’s at the bottom. A magnate could just as easily be a maid, should the vicissitudes of time and fate turn against him. And while currency might change, such things as food, youth, and beauty will always have intrinsic value.
This is not particularly insightful. Yet, for a man who so clearly delights in soaking the rich, Ostlund’s interpretation affirms the social order in a way: There’s no such thing as a meritocracy, and the rich aren’t inherently different from you and me. They just happen to have more money—at least for now.
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