‘Triangle of Sadness’ review: Marx for Beginners!
Woody Harrelson in Triangle of Sadness

Editor’s note: The following review contains some plot spoilers.

Like any trainwreck, Ruben Ostlund’s Triangle of Sadness is hard to look away from. There’s a florid cast of characters, lots of action, and clear political rooting interests. Two legs of his triangle are a bit shaky, though quite interesting. But the hypotenuse is certainly compelling in execution.

Carl (Harris Dickinson) and Yaya (Charlbi Dean) are young fashion models, influencers on a dinner date at an expensive restaurant. They had agreed that the more affluent Yaya would pay the bill.  When the bill comes, she balks. Carl is upset, citing her agreement and financial resources. Clearly gender expectations clash with their relative abilities. Could the great philosophers of political economics have not anticipated such situations?

Fortunately, the price of dinner would not be an issue the next time we see the couple boarding a luxurious yacht. Their role on the yacht would be part of the promotional publicity campaign. They mingle with the cruise’s older ruling class clientele and its working  class staff. Jarmo is a lonely, eccentric multimillionaire who poorly expresses himself; Therese, a stroke victim, can only speak a single sentence.  Clementine and Winston are a feckless older couple who have made a fortune selling weapons.  Russian oligarch Dimitry— traveling with his wife Vera— has made his wealth manufacturing and bartering “shit.” Dimitry becomes the standard bearer for Capitalism.

At the opposite pole is the ship’s Captain (Woody Harrelson). The Captain can barely be lured out of his cabin for the ceremonial Captain’s welcoming dinner. As we are introduced to him, we hear the faint strains of “The Internationale” escaping from his cabin. The Captain’s speech and dinner itself are interrupted by a violent storm. As Dimitry and the Captain engage in overblown dialectic over the relative merits of Capitalism and Socialism, the boat’s Ruling Class passengers are buffeted by the raging tempest. Passengers and their undigested and digested dinners are thrown up, out and all over. Ostlund spares the audience no amount of hyperbolic mayhem in either dialectic, diarrhetics or dietetics.

As the storm has subsided by morning, the crew attempts to clean up. Their efforts are to no avail as pirates attack, Clementine and Winston are killed by one of their own exploding grenades and the yacht sinks. Only Carl, Yaya, Dimitry and three others survive to a nearby island where they have limited supplies and a disabled rescue boat.

Of the washed up group, Abigail (Dolly de Leon), who had been a lowly toilet clean up maid on the yacht, quickly distinguishes herself by her survival skills. The rich passengers are helpless in nature. Abigail is able to catch and prepare food and set up living conditions. The new class structure of the beach is ruled by Abigail, who sets up sleeping quarters in the disabled boat for her and Carl whom she seduces away from the useless Yaya. In Abigail, de Leon is able to create an entirely plausible character for whom we can root for without remorse.

Ostlund’s film has garnered him his second Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festivals, an Oscar nomination for Best Picture, and popularity among many reviewers and the viewing public. But apparently his strong satire of the Ruling Class has also earned him quite a bit of enmity from mainstream critics. Granted, his treatments were hyperbolic and unyieldingly fierce. Perhaps a more fine etching or nuance would have won him more praise. But one cannot help but admire this trenchant piece of agitprop. In the face of the harsh realities of this cruel gilded age of increasingly crushing wealth disparities, do the uber-rich really need equal time and genteel sensibilities?


Michael Berkowitz
Michael Berkowitz

Michael Berkowitz, a veteran of the civil rights and anti-war movements, has been Land Use Planning Consultant to the government of China for many years. He taught Chinese and American History at the college level, worked with Eastern Kentucky Welfare Rights Org. with miners, and was an officer of SEIU.