As I watched Ruben Östlund’s recent Palme d’Or winner, Triangle of Sadness, at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, I couldn’t help but recall Valerie Complex’s 2019 piece “On Being Black at Cannes: How Microaggressions Marred My Festival Experience.” For Complex, the festival’s racial disparities were fractured and wide and influenced everyday, necessary experiences through commodification and the arbitrary assignation of spaces where certain groups (white and rich) navigate confidently while others fought to enter. The essay influenced my viewing experience, though apparently not of the festival itself: even as Triangle of Sadness won the 2022 Palme d’Or, black film critics were still shunned across Cannes.
The film opens with Harris Dickinson’s character, Carl, posing shirtless at a modeling casting call. The conventionally good-looking men who surround him pose similarly, displaying impressive physiques. All hope to make the final cut. Cut to the next scene, and Carl attends the fashion show he wasn’t cast in. Its theme? Inclusion. Before the show can begin, though, everyone sitting up front is escorted from their seats because others, with “connections,” are taking the closest seats. As people move down the line, Carl is left out and forced to sit in the back. This setup is indicative of the shaky attempt at social commentary that Triangle of Sadness delivers.
Alongside films like The Menu and Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery, Triangle of Sadness offers us a satirical look at the ridiculously out-of-touch upper class in all their privilege and excess. But poking fun at the lavish lifestyle and willful ignorance of wealthy people isn’t all that compelling when the execution is as half-baked and pedantic as this. The film comes off as a poor reimagining of White Lotus – only here, for something a little different, it’s set on a yacht. That detail feels a bit arbitrary, but then there are many similar, stilted moments throughout Triangle of Sadness where you can’t help but lose the thread of the film.
We start with Yaya (Charlbi Dean) and Carl in an exploration of gender dynamics before pivoting abruptly to class hierarchies. European couples reminisce about their history as if it isn’t filled with colonial violence. Some passengers force the ship’s employees to participate in guest activities in a weak attempt at liberating the proletariat from their “capitalistic chains.” In between, the film wastes its time dwelling on the empty conversations of rich people, saying things that have been said countless times before. You, like me, might have expected a film that won Cannes’ highest award to touch on our era of class consciousness with nuance and creativity. Instead, Triangle of Sadness‘ three acts – each of which functions more like a self-contained episode than three parts of a coherent whole – pat themselves on the back for regurgitating tiresome critiques of the elite atop a bland, confusing narrative. It’s all as surface-level as the privileged people Östlund attempts to mock.
Unfortunately, Dolly De Leon’s Abigail endures a faux sense of social justice in Triangle‘s third act that her brilliant performance can’t erase. At first, Abigail appears to becomes the source of tension among the class structures established before the yacht accident. She’s in charge of rations because she’s the only one capable of fishing and cooking; therefore, Abigail is also in control of everyone who wishes to survive. This could have been the introduction to a powerful statement on the inherent value of the working class and the knowledge of basic survival skills. But the story arc ends up falling woefully short of any such commentary, as Abigail uses her position of power to gain sexual favors from Carl.
The late Charlbi Dean’s portrayal of the empty-headed influencer Yaya is one of Triangle of Sadness’ few highlights. Dean’s performance is a delicate balance of distasteful banality and charm. It’s charming enough that by the film’s end, as Abigail stands poised to smash Yaya with a rock, part of you actually hopes she won’t do it. It even took the edge out of that (alleged) final blow to the head.
Yet Abigail’s character meets an even more tragic end. Her anger is more than justified; her self-righteousness is as sweet and as tart as lemon curd. But her turn to sexual manipulations left a bitter taste in my mouth. Is the “bite” to the film intended to be Abigail’s complete transformation into the very type of person she wishes to control and, ultimately, kill? Is it supposed to be satisfying that Abigail becomes just another caricature of a human being, indistinguishable from everyone else on the island?
Real grit in recent installments of the Eat The Rich genre should come from honest commentary on what lurks within the segregated spaces of the ultra-rich. And from digging deep to tear out their rotting innards. (For a template, start with anything Michael Haneke has ever made.) Östlund’s Triangle of Sadness gives us nothing of the sort. It meanders in the vicinity of these structures’ edges, but never once dares to bring them crumbling down. Doing so – even attempting at doing so – takes more than a just a pair of drunken men on opposite sides of the political spectrum having a jovial chat about the pros and cons of the belief systems they hold so dear.