The title of Triangle of Sadness refers to the area between the eyebrows, which model Carl (Harris Dickinson) is told to relax while he’s auditioning for a new gig. There may be a lot of furrowing of that area among viewers as they watch writer-director Ruben Östlund’s perplexing movie, which belabors its basic points about the awfulness of the ultra-wealthy over the course of nearly two and a half plodding hours. Östlund takes on easy satirical targets and delivers a movie as smug and superficial as the people he’s mocking.
Carl and his girlfriend, fellow model Yaya (Charlbi Dean), are Triangle of Sadness’ main characters, although the movie drifts away from them for large portions of its middle section. Divided into three chapters, Triangle of Sadness devotes its opening half-hour to the fraught but mutually beneficial relationship between Carl and Yaya, who engage in a tedious, lengthy argument about which of them should pay for dinner at a fancy restaurant. It may be meant to be a thorny examination of gender roles, but it just comes off as performative philosophizing from a pair of disingenuous narcissists.
Thanks to Yaya’s status as a social media influencer, the couple is invited on a luxury yacht cruise alongside paying customers who are much, much richer than they are, and thus more despicable and oblivious. In this second chapter, Östlund mines most of his deadpan humor from the contrast between the petty ridiculousness of the powerful, privileged passengers and the efforts that the crew have to undertake in order to keep them satisfied. The backbone of the crew is Paula (Vicki Berlin), the head of staff who keeps employees in line and facilitates guest requests, no matter how inconvenient or unreasonable.
Berlin is the backbone of the movie, too, delivering a tightly controlled performance as a tightly controlled woman whose professionalism almost never wavers. She doesn’t even break when the ship is buffeted by a storm during the traditional multi-course captain’s dinner, causing bouts of vomiting and diarrhea among the guests. The drunk, belligerent captain (Woody Harrelson) spends his time arguing the merits of socialism versus capitalism with a Russian oligarch (Zlatko Burić), eventually literally reading excerpts from Karl Marx over the ship’s communication system, in case the point wasn’t obvious.
The third chapter takes another twist, paring down the cast and putting the focus on Abigail (Dolly de Leon), a Filipino cleaner who’d been a background player in the second part. Here, Östlund’s allegory becomes even blunter, with nearly an hour spent on an island where the handful of characters recreate the class dynamics of society at large. No matter how much time the movie devotes to them, none of these characters feel like more than talking points in a dry, condescending presentation about wealth inequality and conspicuous consumption. They’re often shot from a distance in long takes that emphasize the disconnect between the film and the people it’s ostensibly about.
Östlund, a Swedish filmmaker making his English-language debut, is known for that kind of aloof dissection of societal dynamics, in acclaimed movies including Force Majeure and The Square. Like The Square, Triangle of Sadness won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, a place where most of its characters would fit right in. There’s no self-deprecation in the comedy here, just Östlund presenting terrible people and pointing at how terrible they are. Human nature may be inherently selfish, and society may be irredeemably corroded, but slogging through this interminable movie won’t do anything to illuminate or alleviate that. It’s as hollow as the decadent excess it depicts.