Östlund: Triangle of Sadness (2022)
Over his last couple of films, Ruben Östlund has gradually gestured towards a new kind of social media event, or a new way of understanding events as they happen in the current media world. In Force Majeure, he focused on a father who leaves his family to perish during an avalanche, an event that is both traumatically public and irreducibly private. Similarly, in The Square, he provided us with an art-event that drew on the conceptual happenings of the 60s, while remaing attuned to contemporary social media as well. Östlund continues this trend with Triangle of Sadness, his take on influencer culture and Instagram. Even more than The Square, Triangle of Sadness often feels like an artistic event as much as a film, partly because it’s divided into three fairly discrete sections, each of which strikes a different note.
In the first of these acts, we meet an influencer couple, Carl, played by Harris Dickinson, and Yaya, played by Charlbi Dean, and follow them (so to speak) as they bicker over an expensive dinner, and take the argument back to their hotel suite. While this sustained conversation is almost entirely about money, Östlund shoots it to suggest that influence has become a new kind of capital, adjacent to, but in some ways more powerful than, regular financial transactions. At one level, Carl and Yaya are having an authentic argument, which starts with her putting pressure on him to pay for the meal, despite the fact that he always pays, and she earns more than him. Beyond a certain point, however, the argument becomes more solipsistic, and turns into a way to bask in their shared influencer aura, meaning it’s only a matter of time before they shift to having sex and curating Insta photographs of each other.
This creates a contradictory mood, in which the sheer fact of arguing, bickering and even leaving each other in the hotel corridor only reiterates the influencer aura of the couple. During the credit sequence, Östlund frames this paradox explicitly in terms of the contradictory style of Instagram itself. We’re presented with a group of male models, in a flat and featureless space, along with a commentator who instructs them to change their facial expressions to fit the demands of different brands. Their visages are as flat as the spatial field, immersing us in the strange depthlessness of Instagram, which tends to be resistant to three-dimensional space, partly because it doesn’t ramify that well on small portable devices, and partly because conspicuous consumption is easier to convey in a flatter, smoother field. Östlund also shoots this credit sequence in a squatter frame ratio, meaning it resembles an Instagram picture, while introducing Carl, one of the models, as the next big Instagram icon.
However, this flatness is undercut by a three-dimensional motif – the “triangle of sadness” that the commentator identifies (and criticises) between Carl’s eyes. Not only does the triangle of sadness undercut the vibe of the shoot, but it suggests a different spatial field, or a different spatial imperative, underlying the curated flatness of it all. Of course, triangles are two-dimensional objects, but sprawled across the space of Carl’s forehead, this one suggests a more complex spatial field that is both resistant to and inherent in the logic of Instagram itself. For while Insta prioritises flatness, the best accounts give an illusion of depth, and sometimes genuinely experiment with depth, insofar as they reach out directly to the viewer, or invite the viewer right into the image, with especially confessional or explicit content. This distinction drives the entirety of Triangle of Sadness: that great influencers appreciate the flatness of influencing, but prodigious influencers know how and when to break that flatness.
That’s what we see Carl and Yaya doing in the opening act of the film, when their argument takes them from the restaurant, to a taxi, to their hotel, and finally back to Carl’s bedroom. There’s a claustrophobic depthlessness to the restaurant scene, a sense that we could remain here forever, trapped in an Instagram backdrop, if one of the characters doesn’t make a move. That job falls to Carl, who uses the argument about money as a pretext to open up space, especially depth-of-field, most notably during the peak of the altercation, when he stands in the doorway of the hotel elevator, and continually holds it open to keep the conversation going, insisting on his three-dimensional presence behind (or within) the foreclosing flatness of the doors. By using an argument about actual money as a pretext to breach the flatness of Instagram space, Carl intuits that real capital now lies in this ability to influence on the threshold between Insta convention and a more abject Insta vulnerability.
This revelation takes us to the second act of the film, which unfolds on a luxury cruise in the Mediterranean. Östlund presents this as another one of the art media events that dot his career, starting with an opening pep talk from Paula, the chief steward, played by Vicki Berlin, who tells her crew that the first few hours and the final day are the most important parts of any cruise. This event also takes place at the cusp between traditional capital and influencer capital. While most of the guests come from the uppermost echelons of the 1%, Carl and Yaya have got a room for free, on the back of their Instagram presence. They could never hope to achieve the financial wealth of their fellow travellers, but it doesn’t really matter, since influencing has provided them with a new kind of capital. Much of this second act thus traces the abject interface between money and influence, personified by a wealthy one-percenter who can only say the same thing over and over, like a trite Insta caption: “Up in the clouds.”
During this second act, Östlund digs deep into his incredible capacity for visual satire – and spatial satire in particular – to evoke the atavistic and ritualistic depth of field that lies behind the curated flatness of Instagram. All of the characters recognise, at some level, that capital now consists in how and when you choose to unleash this horrific depth, although their approaches and strategies vary. Before elaborating them, however, Östlund spends some time laying the parameters for this depraved three-dimensionality, by emphasising the sheer grotesquerie and pathology of the wealth on display. This is broad satire, but the best satire always has some element of broadness, which feels even more necessary in a world where extreme wealth is so often manicured out of visibility by Hollywood. Here, by contrast, we meet a man who literally sells shit, and who greets Carl and Yaya by proudly outlining the history of his compost monopoly. We also meet a sweet old couple, deeply in love, who turn out to work in the business of “precision products…upholding democracy all over the world.”
While most of these guests have never heard of Instagram, they still recognise that the most powerful form of capital involves breaking the curated flatness of their lives in strategically perverse ways. Since they’re the wealthiest of the wealthy, and they’re all on the same yacht, conspicuous consumption doesn’t work any more. Instead, they opt for conspicuous perversion – performatively nonsensical whims that typically betray a desire to break open the spatial field of the ship, but on their own arcane terms. One woman, for example, continually complains about the dirt on the sails, even though she’s told there are no sails, as if conjuring up the wind as a spatial force in a world that’s entirely driven by digital technology. More flamboyantly, another woman draws the crew into her own Insta-space, by instructing them to shirk their duties and join her for a swim, before projecting them beyond the ship just as rapidly, by insisting that they all jump onto the rubber slide and into the sea.
Both of these gestures are figuratively equivalent to Carl and Yaya’s opening argument, even if they aren’t framed directly in terms of Instagram. Influence here means rupturing the flat spatial hierarchy of influence, whether through introducing a new spatial propulsion (the wind), breaking down class thresholds only to restore them (the role reversal and the slide) or, in the case of Carl and Yaya, endless conversations and obsessions that break into new spaces by sheer virtue of their insatiability. With that conceit in play, Östlund now moves us to the centrepiece of the film – a Captain’s Dinner, the peak of conspicuous influence on the ship. The captain, played by Woody Harrelson, deliberately schedules this dinner for a rocky night at sea, while the meal is further delayed, until it occurs at the peak of the heavy weather, by the woman who insists on the collective water slide, which sets the crew back half an hour.
Whereas the woman who insists on the water slide is trying to refine her influence, it’s clear, from the outset, that Harrelson’s captain has no time for influence. Between those two imperatives, Östlund uses this dinner scene to capture the moment at which the abject core of influence, and of Instagram, overtakes the capacity of influencers to harness it, which also means that this is the central set piece of the film – the moment when Östlund’s gift for spatial satire reaches full sway. Over the first part of this sequence, the waves build, the ship heaves side to side, and all the compositions grow awry. Nevertheless, this isn’t quite enough to dismantle the veneer of influence, since the strange flatness remains – the camera, and the characters, are only moving laterally, without ever quite insisting on any real depth-of-field. Watching it is a bit like focusing on your phone while it’s shaking, or when you’re running, or in a shuddering space – the image is a bit nauseating, but it never quite reaches full abjection.
All that changes, however, when the crew start bringing out the food, at which point this sequence turns into a sustained vomitorium – the most flamboyant vomiting sequence I have ever seen on screen. So artfully have these influencers negotiated the abject depth-of-field of Instagram that only the most visceral ejecta is enough for that three-dimensionality to overtake them and consume them. Accordingly, Östlund carefully choreographs the leadup of this vomiting sequence, taking us to the very threshold between food and vomit, consumption and projection. While the guests are told they need to allay seasickness, the sheer sight of food makes them nauseous, starting with the entrée – a transparent jelly that quivers vertiginously in ultra-sensitive response to the swell and lurch of the ship, like a figure for the spatial field of the film itself as it reaches the cusp between consumption and ejection.
Once we arrive at this cusp, Östlund stays there for a remarkable period of time, in which each spectacle of vomiting somehow feels like the first. For about half an hour, the film cascades through one vomiting tableau after another (this is part of the reason why it clocks in at over two hours), all of which reimagine that first primal moment when you recognise food returning as something else. Caught at that cusp between food and vomit, all food, and all consumption, feels like incipient vomit, including the deckings of the ship itself, which start to fall apart too, exploding, spraying and propelling faeces, vomit and the more general liquefaction of human consumption back on the guests. Östlund visualises the abject logic of influencer culture – consuming stuff onto to project it back onto the world – while suggesting that only the most scatological farce can redeem depth itself from being the ultimate influencer commodity. In a world where sincerity, depth and depth-of-field is the ultimate NFT, farce can only operate by abjuring all pretension to depth, complexity or sophistication.
To call Triangle of Sadness too crude is thus somewhat beside the point, since the whole point of Östlund’s satire is to offer a vision that is as (literally) on-the-nose as possible, in order to disrupt the manicured mise-en-scenes that have come to stand for influencer capital even or especially when they seem to be critiquing their own lack of depth. The result is a Marxist farce that culminates with the Captain, an American communist, and the shit farmer, a Russian capitalist, exchanging quotes from Thatcher and Reagan on the one hand, and Lenin and Marx on the other hand, as Östlund unfolds a montage of ejecta pouring from every conceivable orifice in the ship. It’s as if Östlund’s ultimate target are influencers who critique influencers, influencers who co-opt the rhetoric of equality, democracy and even socialism to add that elusive depth-of-field to their flat tableaux. In such a world, farce must double down on both extremes – flatness and depth – to destroy any sense of a coherent middle ground.
That’s just what happens during the climax to this second act, as the Captain and Russian co-opt the ship’s speaker system. Up to this point, the speakers have been used to preserve the flat spaces of the ship, and to some extent they continue that job now, ushering in an accelerated montage in which we move from one image to another, like a hellish Instagram story. At the same time, however, the speakers take us through a series of rooms and bodies that are ruptured by the escalating ejecta of it all, which eventually infects the communist and capitalist discourse, rendering it impossible to appropriate as influence, until the Captain can no longer properly differentiate “socialism” and “shit” in his slurring voiceover. It’s like watching Titanic if the wealthy guests were flooded by their own effluvia, a literal front-on assault that ends, the next morning, with Östlund’s final refusal to allow them to harvest depth-of-field for its influence capital. In a scene as cursory as the last sequence is protracted, we cut to a group of African pirates, who launch a grenade straight into the side of the ship.
This moment is utterly devoid of any overt political significance – we only see the pirates for this brief second, we never learn their names and we never learn their agenda. Instead, they’re ciphers for Östlund’s spatial satire, taking the exact brand of weapons pioneered by the sweet old couple on board, and firing them across the longest single sightline, and the most vivid depth-of-field, in the entire film. With this shot (literally), Triangle of Sadness finally robs Instagram, and influence, of its capacity to generate capital from depth, involuting the spatial scheme of influence, and projecting a small handful of survivors onto a remote island.
The third act unfolds on this island and is, in some ways, the most unusual and ambivalent part of the film. On the one hand, we seemed to have finally left the sphere of influence, or at least totally reversed it, since Abigail, the ship’s toilet manager, played by Dolly De Leon, now becomes the most powerful member of the group, due to her ability to catch fish and start fires. In that sense, she surfs the faecal ejecta of the second act, building a matriarchal society in which she, rather than Yaya, becomes Carl’s object of choice. At the same time, depth of field becomes too murky to be either traversed or claimed by influencers, especially in and around the lifeboat that Yaya claims as her own. We typically see this lifeboat across distances, but obscured distances, usually at night, that make it clear it’s a long way off from the survivors’ but simultaneously prevent us from figuring out exactly how far off. Depth is more present than at any point so far, but it’s too opaque to be renewed as a site of influence.
That absence of influence, or recircuiting of influence, gives this third act an oddly distended quality, although influence returns, with a vengeance, in a compressed closing sequence. Finally, after what seems weeks, Abigail and Yaya decide to explore the island, and climb over the massive mountain separating them from the other shore. At first, it seems like Yaya, who suggests the walk, and is jealous of Abigail’s relationship with Carl, is planning to kill her; then, it appears that Abigail may have the same idea in mind. Both of these options pale in horror, however, in comparison to their final discovery – that they’re simply on the remote side of a luxury island resort, as exclusive and boutique as the cruise ship. They stop for a brief beat on the cusp of this resort, recalibrating what to do next, and how it will reconfigure the power dynamics between them, as the one surreal sign of the hotel – an elevator cut into a pure rock face, blaring out dance music – restores crystalline depth as an influence to be harvested.
The film ends at this precarious cusp, with depth again in play, but a qualified depth, since the sheer incongruity of this elevator in the cliff face, and the monolithic quality of the cliff face itself, bring back the strange flatness that we saw in the opening act. All three key players now try to harness this depth for the last time – Yaya prepares to get off the beach and walk into the elevator; Abigail picks up a rock and walks in the opposite direction, planning to strike her and conceal the resort; and, in one final elliptical shot, Carl runs through the forest, although it’s unclear whether he’s trying to escape Abigail later on, or whether he’s realised that Abigail and Yaya’s walk might end in bloodshed, and is pursuing them in the present. These three trajectories trace a path from Yaya, the influencer, languorously contemplating the return of Insta depth, to Abigail, the heretic, trying to rupture that depth before Yaya can contain it, to Carl, the reformed influencer, trying to disrupt both processes, but only able to move laterally, from side to side, as desperately as he wants to arrogate depth himself too.
In that sense, Triangle of Sadness ends where the second acts peaks – on the cusp between the manic lateral movements of the heaving ship (or Carl’s run) and the violent ejecta of vomit (or Abigail striking Yaya over the head from behind). Beyond a certain point, Carl’s run doesn’t have any “content,” or narrative meaning – it’s a propulsion, like the dance beats that peak as he accelerates, a line of flight from influencer culture that, in the end, can only rock it from side to side, rather than matching the violent depth that the film, as a whole, fleetingly attains. Paradoxically, to achieve that depth, Östlund has to eschew regular depth, fracturing his film more than “deepening” it in the conventional way, and building his best farce around those fractures and fissures, which eject an abject vision unavailable in regular narrative fare.
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