Ruben Ostlund’s Palme-winning satire Triangle of Sadness is almost too on-the-nose with how eerily its three sections echo the gradual descent of his recent filmography. The Swedish director broke on to the international scene with Force Majeure back in 2014, which appropriately skewered a kind of masculine insecurity well-familiar to almost every male-identifying person on the planet, with its psychological twists and turns feeling both organic and honest while remaining perpetually funny. In turn, the first section of Sadness takes a similar tack: A male model (Harris Dickinson) finds that his career is on the skids while his girlfriend (Charlbi Dean, who tragically passed away earlier this year) remains in demand on the runway and magazine ads. After a fashion show in which she leads off the procession, and he is forced out of his seat at the far end of the front row to make room for some wealthy folks, an argument breaks out between the two of them at dinner over who will pick up the check. It’s awkward and understated, with the characters hovering over uncomfortable truths and making ridiculous errors, and Dickinson and Dean are both very funny. This is the first time I can recall Dickinson’s stony features being used to swell comedic effect, and he sinks his teeth into what Ostlund has given him on the page. There are hints of broader satire — the fashion company, after all, is modern and progressive and has platitudes plastered all over the digital walls at their show — but the focus remains on the characters, which is just as interesting and as impactful as one would hope it would be.
The troubles begin to emerge in Triangle‘s second section, in which the models, who also happen to be “influencers,” head out to promote a luxury cruise stocked to the gills with the kind of wealthy folks that one might imagine would be onboard. There’s a drunken Russian capitalist, playing between his wife and mistress while ranting about how he sells “shit” (as in fertilizer) for millions; a type-A staffer in charge of the upper-deck servants; the reclusive yet boisterous captain (Woody Harrelson), who only emerges when he has to give a dinner to the assembled; a German woman who, following a stroke that’s left her half-paralyzed, can only say a specific phrase; and a pair of charming Britishers who, it turns out, have made their fortune selling weapons. This is when the agitprop side of Ostlund begins to emerge, much like it did in The Square, for which he won his first Palme at Cannes back in 2017. It’s hoary and obvious, but its unsubtle and pained attempts at “satire” are offset by just how chaotically funny is. If you remember the Ape-Man sequence from that film (and if you haven’t seen it yet, just find the clip on YouTube and save yourself the trouble), imagine if it were extended to a full half-hour of utter chaos as the passengers are served tainted food while the seas are at their roughest. If “Weird Al” had ever recorded a parody of Harry Nilson’s “Everybody’s Talkin'” and called it “Everybody’s Pukin’,” I’m sure Ostlund would have seized upon the chance to use it for just a brief moment in this sequence — too long and it’d be a little bit of a nightmare in its obviousness, but long enough to make sure that you got the point over those twinkling guitars. It’s understandable why the Cannes crowds and judges ate it up: It’s a very well-executed and familiar style of European comedy that has easy targets (many of whom would be in that audience themselves) and whose lack of genuine thematic punchiness is excused by the fact that it’s viscerally gross and crass but done with zeal and precision.
And yet the third act, which I’ll shroud in secrecy because, hey, you haven’t had the chance to see it already, seems to act as a foreboding omen for the rest of Ostlund’s career as a satirist, in which he takes an amusing ending to the second section and transforms it into the dullest possible conclusion one might imagine in this potential scenario. One would not be wrong to call this a High Art disaster movie, with the same broad caricatures and inversions of the social order as you’d find in any Roland Emmerich film, but with the added prestige of laurels from the South of France helping to remind you that you’re *definitely* not watching trash, no siree. For all of Triangle to boil down to the message that “power corrupts in both relationship dynamics andsocial settings” makes it feel like the whole two and a half hours is mainly Ostlund trying his best to forestall that sinking feeling that comes when they realize that something, midway through, isn’t going to turn out. It’s a similar sensation to getting food poisoning almost immediately after unknowingly eating something foul: first, your soda starts tasting weird and metallic, but you’re still having a good time with whatever you’re doing (in my case, it was a Boston College football game, and no, I was not drinking that evening). Then the rumbles start deep inside your belly, and so does the cold sweat, which is when the third-act transition happens. And within the first five minutes of this finale, you’re throwing your puke-covered hoodie into a garbage can in 30-degree weather, wondering how a night that seemed pretty decent turned out so miserable, as you go back to the stands and watch the conclusion while freezing your ass off in the cheap seats.
It’s as severe of a collapse as I’ve seen in a highly-acclaimed comedy in quite a while, and if Ostlund continues down this path, the broadness of his strokes will ultimately render him unable to craft any meaningful detail, no matter how much puke he spills on the canvas.