The closer you look at the subject of beauty, the uglier it appears. Meanwhile, wealth is obscene from practically every angle. Irreverent Swedish satirist Ruben Östlund gets right up in there, probing the pores of the elitist worlds of supermodels and the mega-rich in “Triangle of Sadness,” which takes its name from a fashion-world term for the deep-V crease that appears between one’s eyebrows with stress or age. Nothing a little Botox can’t fix.
Östlund’s wickedly funny, English-language follow-up to “The Square” features none of the same characters as his 2017 Palme d’Or winner, but follows much the same tactic of creating deeply uncomfortable situations for people more than comfortable with their privilege. It’s a Buñuelian strategy, à la “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie,” of which Östlund has become art cinema’s foremost practitioner. His operating theory here, floated amid arguments about capitalism and Karl Marx, is that beauty itself is a form of currency, albeit an incredibly volatile and fickle one, like crypto, that can crash at any time. To test that premise, Östlund sends an ultra-elite cruise ship to the bottom of the sea, observing how the survivors handle being marooned on a desert island. There, a Rolex is worth nothing, but it helps to be hot.
“Triangle’s” appropriately shallow protagonists are social-media influencers Carl and Yaya (essentially, professional selfie-takers who share photos of themselves pretending to enjoy whatever swag they’re offered), played by Harris Dickinson and Charlbi Dean. The pair can’t seem to decide whether they’re really a couple, or just fine with acting like one to gain a few extra followers online. In any case, they bicker like soon-to-be-ex-lovers, which seems like as good a definition for their situation as any.
Yaya has been invited for a free ride on an expensive super yacht (the almost-100-meter Christina O, once the prize of Aristotle Onassis). She and Carl are by far the poorest of the passengers: Her card is declined at a restaurant before boarding, while he earns a fraction of what she does, as is normal in the fashion industry. The other guests are drowning in dough — and are soon to be drowning because of it, since the cruise is an obvious target for a pirate attack.
Östlund opens the film on land, behind the scenes of a fashion shoot, where a documentary crew introduces a few basic concepts, like the way luxury brands look down on their consumers. Where do influencers fit into this, one wonders? Just when the public thinks it’s figured out the fashion world’s tricks, the industry adapts. Meanwhile, Östlund seems to be operating on an early-2000s critique of that sector — which is fine, but a bit behind the times.
In its patently superficial, undeniably absurd focus on looks over substance, this sector makes for an easy target. It would be a lot more daring to confront the way these trendsetters and tastemakers are grappling with a public that’s started to tell them what they think is beautiful — basically, all the traits that were once bullied in schoolyards: redheads and freckles, Kardashian curves and people of color, pretty boys and flat-chested girls. In a world of Instagram filters and affordable cosmetic procedures, “perfection” comes easy. Personality, it turns out, is harder to come by.
It’s interesting that Östlund cast Dean, who makes no attempt to hide the scar on her abdomen, and Dickinson, who brings a kind of fragile vulnerability to the Abercrombie frat-boy type (having played bi in “Beach Rats”). Throughout the opening act, Östlund observes these two trying to negotiate their unconventional relationship, bickering over the smallest things. Aboard the cruise, Carl gets jealous when a member of the crew takes off his shirt. Yaya seems turned on by the carpet of hair that covers the man’s chest and back — the opposite of the depilated Ken-doll aesthetic expected of Carl and his fellow models. Do women really want what he embodies? He complains to the ship’s chief stew, Paula (Vicki Berlin), and the guy is sent packing.
The first half of “Triangle of Sadness” is constructed mostly of such interactions: scenes in which the characters flex their power relative to one another. Filthy-rich Russian fertilizer magnate Dimitriy (Zlatko Burić) offers to buy the boat out from under the captain (Woody Harrelson, whose ridiculous character spends much of the film drunk in his cabin), while his wife Vera (Sunnyi Melles) insists, “We are all equals,” ordering the crew to abandon their responsibilities and join her for a swim. When confronted with such wealth, the word “no” is not in their vocabulary.
Then comes the captain’s dinner, which plays like a Monty Python sketch, as the guests try to slurp oysters while a storm rocks the boat. A woman in a wheelchair screams the same German phrase, like Peter Sellers unable to contain a Nazi salute in “Dr. Strangelove.” A sweet elderly couple reveal that their millions were made selling hand grenades (setting up the movie’s most perverse punchline: “Oh Winston, isn’t this one of ours?”). A trophy wife nearly drowns when her toilet belches its contents back in her face. It’s all so excessive that the tone of subtle schadenfreude now turns to concern. These elites may be insufferable at times, but no one deserves this. Or what comes next. But testing the limits is what Östlund does best.
The last third of the film focuses on a subset of the passengers and crew, who wash up on an island and quickly realize that none of them has the skills to last even a few days in the wild. Then a lifeboat arrives with one of the crew, Abigail (Dolly De Leon). On board, she was a mere toilet manager, but Abigail knows how to cook and fish, which makes her the leader of their new makeshift society. Up to this point, the characters have behaved in exaggerated, yet recognizable ways, but now, Östlund pushes them into hypothetical territory, effectively illustrating his own beliefs about human nature.
These castaways have nothing useful to offer, apart from Carl, who’s handsome, which sets up a barter system — food and shelter for sexual favors — that audiences wouldn’t stand for, if the gender roles were reversed. An hour earlier, Carl was browsing $25,000 engagement rings to offer Yaya. Now, he’s trading back massages for pretzel sticks. It’s funny, but it’s cruel. By the time the film reaches its womp-womp ending, anyone who formed any kind of attachment to this couple will find the words “triangle of sadness” to be a more than apt description of these characters’ new dynamic.
The thing about Östlund is that he makes you laugh, but he also makes you think. There’s a meticulous precision to the way he constructs, blocks and executes scenes — a kind of agonizing unease, amplified by awkward silences or an unwelcome fly buzzing between characters struggling to communicate. First “The Square,” then “Triangle.” No matter what sphere he tackles, we’re bound to see the world differently.