Mon. May 27th, 2024

Depiction of Social Hierarchies in Triangle of Sadness

Lately, there have been many cultural works depicting the lives of extremely wealthy individuals and their less fortunate servants, exchanging minimal rewards. Series like Mad Men and Succession have delved into the lives of the one percent, offering sharp criticisms of the upper-class resorts and their wealthy patrons. One standout example is Triangle of Sadness, a dark comedy by Ruben Östlund, which humorously and sharply portrays social hierarchies and examines capitalism. One scene in the film takes place on a luxurious cruise ship, where a wealthy passenger urges the crew to have fun, revealing the stark contrast between the servants and their wealthy patrons.

Conversations among the wealthy often revolve around three main topics: their lavish vacations, strategies to avoid taxes by evading permanent residency, and their luxurious properties. They constantly move around, never settling in one place, trying to escape the growing public resentment towards them. In Triangle of Sadness, chaos ensues when a storm turns the cruise ship into a vomitorium, with sea-sick passengers indulging in champagne and delicious meals, only to vomit uncontrollably. The loud music in the background showcases overflowing toilets and streams of filth, evoking both revulsion and thrill. The intoxicated cruise captain, who ironically proclaims himself a Marxist, seizes the moment to criticize the guests for their access to a world of suffering amidst their luxury.

Östlund’s Filmmaking Style and Critique of Wealth

Östlund’s Triangle of Sadness, which received the prestigious Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, investigates human behavior through satire, mainly focusing on the profit and arrogance of the ultra-wealthy. The film adopts an episodic structure, drawing inspiration from social media platforms like YouTube in creating sequences resembling comic short films. Östlund’s filmmaking style critiques the obsession with wealth and class, earning comparisons to Luis Buñuel for his sharp examination of the privileges of the rich.

With its Palme d’Or win, Triangle of Sadness faced criticism for its overtly political message. However, the director defended this approach as effective in exposing the ignorance of the extremely wealthy. Similar to the strategies used by climate change activists, the film’s bluntness serves as an intentional tactic. Despite its honesty, the film remains both touching and compelling. The narrative is divided into three chapters, with the first exploring the struggles of a male model and his influential girlfriend in the world of privilege and beauty. Despite their appearance of equality, they face ironic moments of inequality. The second chapter follows the couple on a luxurious cruise, highlighting their relative poverty compared to the rich crew and passengers.

Brands, Business, and Love

The film’s opening scene introduces us to Yaya and Carl, an influencer and model couple. Carl’s modeling audition could have gone better. Yaya, who is more successful, expects him to pay the restaurant bill, hinting that their relationship is more focused on brands and business collaborations than true love. Yaya aspires to become a trophy wife, but Carl challenges this notion, believing he can make her genuinely love him beyond their shallowness.

In the film’s second chapter, Carl’s jealousy over Yaya’s interactions with topless crew members leads him to complain, resulting in the worker’s dismissal. The chapter culminates in a captain’s dinner attended by various passengers, including a couple profiting from producing deadly weapons. The film raises questions about whether the wealthy will face consequences for their privileges and cruelty. While much social media content explores the cruelty of wealth disparity, some media simultaneously mock the rich while fulfilling the audience’s desires for a journey into luxury and upper-class life, eliciting mixed emotions of pleasure and hatred. Consequently, the portrayal is not disruptive and often fades from memory after social media commentary.

Exploring Themes of Suffering and Wealth

Triangle of Sadness explores interconnected themes of suffering and wealth. It depicts how the privileged and less fortunate are entwined within an unequal capitalist framework. The film portrays contemporary life shaped by this ruthless capitalist system, masked by the shallowness it produces. The story centers around the absurdity and luxury of the super-rich on a luxurious cruise ship, leading to a spectacle of chaotic and disgustingly humorous vomiting scenes. Despite the extreme situation, the wealthy remain oblivious while the working class silently cleans up the mess. The film’s criticism is systematic and explicit, reminiscent of Charlie Chaplin’s style in Modern Times, Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, as it showcases a clear hierarchy on the cruise ship, with workers below and privileged passengers on deck.

Östlund’s filmmaking style aims to unsettle and complicate the audience by portraying the wealthy characters’ selfish, irresponsible, and insincere behavior as reflexive and automatic. He treats typical entertainment elements from a sociological perspective, presenting them logically and lingering in uncomfortable moments. In Triangle of Sadness, the characters, including Yaya and Carl, find themselves on an all-expenses-paid luxury cruise, surrounded by wealthy and peculiar guests. The film explores the contrast between the luxurious environment and the unappealing atmosphere on board. Dimitry, who sells fertilizer, stands out for his refreshing honesty about the source of his wealth, unlike other guests who hide the unpleasant origins of their money. Similarly, Yaya, as an influencer, presents her life with an idealized filter, concealing unpleasant realities. The film criticizes how people often project polished images on social media, similar to the filtered perception of life on a cruise ship.

Layered Portrayal of Hierarchy and Privilege

In the film’s final part, a disaster leaves some crew members and passengers stranded on an island, causing a shift in power dynamics. Paula, a figure of authority on the cruise ship, tries to maintain order based on the established hierarchy. However, Abigail, the ship’s toilet manager, takes control using her resourcefulness and survival skills. She positions herself as the new captain, promising a fair society. Nevertheless, Abigail quickly succumbs to the temptation to exploit her power for personal gain. She manipulates Yaya and Carl, using a pretzel stick to make them do what she wants.

Östlund’s films address social issues and delve into power dynamics in personal relationships. Despite his different and critical approach, Östlund has gained significant recognition at the Cannes Film Festival. He has won the Palme d’Or twice, challenging the film industry elite and making statements about the current state of the world.

Systematically, Östlund portrays layers of hierarchical and privileged rights on the cruise ship. As the head of staff, Paula instructs the crew to fulfill every unreasonable guest request, enticed by the promise of generous tips. The controlled filmmaking style creates a subtle distance between the audience and the characters, where Östlund avoids showiness. He lets carefully crafted commentary and dark comedy take center stage. Like a fashion tabloid, the precise cinematographic composition emphasizes the setting. The actors immerse themselves in the meticulously designed setting that serves the film’s message. Besides departing from traditional cinematic catharsis, it forces the viewers to embrace depictions of character experiences that can sometimes be cruel and more insightful.

Luxurious Facade and Deeper Exploration

Starting with scenes from the fashion industry, Triangle of Sadness presents itself as a luxurious film. However, its true intention is to explore deeper themes. Swiftly delving beneath the surface of its subject, it adopts a reality TV structure in its three acts. Like a mechanic inspecting a Rolls-Royce, Dimitry and the captain use the PA system to instill wisdom after the storm. It directs the film’s message straight to the audience’s home with the repeated word “shit.” Referencing Noam Chomsky and his socialist writings, the captain confronts the wealth and greed of the passengers. Overall, Östlund shows self-awareness in his approach. Like the ship’s guests listening to the captain’s words, he acknowledges the audience’s role as captive spectators.

The film’s title refers to the wrinkles between the eyebrows caused by frowning or showing concern. The film explores the illusion of availability within the capitalist system, where everyone seems to have a place and value regardless of claims of equality. Beyond class hierarchy, Östlund examines the expansion of power and universal behavior. Each of the three parts resembles different reality shows, exploring the remote island’s dynamics, the superyacht crew’s life, and the fashion industry. Despite its thought-provoking ideas, Östlund skillfully maintains a captivating yet entertaining narrative, avoiding didacticism.

With the captain acknowledging his compromised position as a “damn socialist,” the film includes a level of self-criticism. On the cruise ship, he serves wealthy industry leaders. Similarly, despite being critical, Östlund is not entirely detached from the world he condemns. As evidenced by the film’s acknowledgment and success, it portrays the absurd lengths taken to fulfill the guests’ desires. Illustrated by extravagant actions like retrieving a Nutella jar via helicopter, Östlund’s meticulous shots showcase the complexity of his filmmaking efforts. The survival motif on the remote island reflects a shift from tragedy to comedy and the display of power dynamics between servants and masters.

Performativity of Equality Claims

In the third part, the film explores the dynamics of significance and the power shift of material ownership in this chaotic reality. On the island, luxury items like Rolex watches lose value compared to basic survival needs like pretzel sticks and chips. Initially rejecting Yaya’s request for maintenance, Carl becomes “maintained” on the island, where survival skills become more important than appearance. On the other hand, Abigail takes on a leadership role on the island due to her valuable survival skills. By gaining relevance in the climate crisis and extreme wealth context, the film’s theme joins other films featuring cruise ship and yacht journeys in exploring the dynamics of extraordinary individuals facing stranded situations and crises in various settings.

In the film, Östlund also acknowledges the familiar background. When model Carl begins spending the night with former “toilet manager” Abigail on a stranded lifeboat, another man mockingly refers to him as the “LOVE BOAT,” highlighting Carl’s reversal from a position of privilege based on his looks. At the film’s beginning, Yaya aspires to become a trophy wife. She rejects the idea of being an equal partner to Carl. However, Carl achieves equality suddenly in the final act. He becomes a trophy himself in the eyes of others. In short, the film presents the idea of equality in an unequal society as a joke. Characters in the fashion show and later on the cruise ship assert that everyone is equal. However, it becomes clear that such claims are merely performative in an oligarchic society. Therefore, Östlund depicts the tourists enjoying their vacation, including their guilt, as another luxury. It highlights the persistent nature of play within an unequal system.

Currently, we are witnessing a significant explosion in the cruise ship industry. With nearly 900 superyachts sold in 2021 (bought mainly by billionaires taking advantage of offshore tax havens), the average greenhouse gas emissions are equivalent to 1500 passenger cars. Despite its exorbitant cost, some argue that superyachts are unfairly vilified. This phenomenon is explored in the documentary Navigators, tracing the history of ships used in Buster Keaton films and previously by the US Department of Justice for deportation. Similarly, Triangle of Sadness uses the superyacht Christina O, formerly owned by Aristotle Onassis, as a symbol of excessive wealth. The film’s biting portrayal of chaos and excesses of the super-rich can prompt reflection on social values, ignite class anger, and provoke strong reactions.

Alternate Approach to Depicting Luxury

Additionally, Östlund employs another approach in depicting the luxury and excess of the super-rich on the superyacht. The standout scene of the captain’s dinner offers an unabashed and literal portrayal of vomiting. It sets it apart from other anti-capitalist maritime films in cinemas. Östlund aims to evoke authentic feelings and shock the audience with bodily reactions. To achieve this, he meticulously recreates the cruise ship’s dining room on a soundstage. While simulating the ship’s movements, he also uses a gimbal to stabilize the camera.


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