The vanity of wealth. Painstakingly crafting an image of articulated perfection to present to the world, a performative veneer of status and import, a gilded temple of opulence built off the broken bones and suffering of those beneath them. It’s never about the money, but it always is. Construct and perfect the stride and cadence of one who doesn’t care, bicker endlessly about the finer details only to laugh it all off because at the end of it all you’re still sailing high above the rest. Dangle the carrot of your loose pocket change in front of those catering to your every need, ensure they sweat in their efforts, demand they debase themselves and waste their time just for the potential of a little extra. The crushing weight of the façade of capitalism, so heavy as it continues its efforts in gilding the shrine of wealth while the sticks beneath bend and crack through gritted teeth.
Thematic weight equally crushing, shattering the precision engineering of the frame until all that’s left is a misshapen fragment, a well meaning single note uninterested in expanding its prism of ideology beyond a thin coating of aesthetic efforts. Ruben Östlund’s Palme d’Or winning Triangle of Sadness is an echo of so much familiarity, a bloated blend of the direction of a decade of popular thematic concepts without any of the understanding or good faith. Three years after Bong Joon-ho’s Palme d’Or winning masterpiece Parasite (2019) dug aggressive fangs into the slowly toppling corpse of late stage capitalism and a growing divide between the wealthy and the impoverished, Östlund endeavors to recreate the same razor sharp satirical edge with far less nuance and none of the precision.
Split into three distinct acts, Triangle of Sadness seems lost at sea from the outset; a ship being carried by the winds and the waters in whatever direction they may pull, not interested in finding a singular narrative throughline to construct its allegory and just jumping from idea to idea with little attempt to endear or build investment. Carl (Harris Dickinson) and Yaya (Charlbi Dean), the subjects of Act I and ostensibly the protagonists of the whole film – though it never seems quite confident on that – are vapid models, in a relationship that seems entirely predicated on status and never on connection. They bicker constantly, trapped in a cycle of jealousy and envy as they continue to needle each other about every penny, a clearly worthless endeavor for the lifestyle they lead. High profile lavish fashion shows offer flashy imagery with contemporary buzzwords, droning about equality and change as event organizers move people around to ensure the right people in the audience are in frame of the cameras. And so illustrated is the film’s central concept: the problems of the wealthy are comically absurd, and everyone in their surrounding caters to their every need despite their frequently embarrassing outbursts.
Act II revolves around the film’s central luxury yacht, a boat with seemingly no destination meandering through tropical waters. It hosts a series of guests each more cartoonishly wealthy than the last; arms dealers, business magnates, influencers, you name it, here to spout capitalist drivel about how they’ve become successful, their positioning at the right place in the right time to rake in the cash from the suffering of others. As they bathe in liquid gold and sip bubbling diamonds, the crew break their backs to ensure they have everything their hearts could ever desire. This is the crux of Parasite, the dichotomy between those who have money and those who work for it, constantly berated and mistreated by the upper class while they drown in an inability to afford shelter and sustenance. Only Triangle of Sadness doesn’t care about the crew in the way that Parasite effortlessly endears you to the downtrodden Kim family. The tirelessly working crew here exist in the frame of the film as peripherally as they exist in the eyes of those they serve, never given a meaningful voice or good faith characterization. Guests whine about dirty sails on a boat with no sails, demand from the crew, and get people fired for any toe out of line. The problems of the wealthy are comically absurd, and everyone in their surrounding caters to their every need despite their frequently embarrassing outbursts.
Act III positions itself as the clever twist, the sharp satirical inversion that pays off its previous 90 minutes of laborious single note endeavor. The problems of the wealthy are comically absurd, but what if they had to fend for themselves? What if their comically absurd problems were reduced to meaningless dust as they sit marooned and hopeless on a desolate beach? What if the once peripheral crew who existed to serve their every whim were now the only capable people left, the rich now having to grovel and beg for scraps from them? It’s a fine idea conceptually but the film doesn’t really even seem to know what any of it means or what this inversion might practically imply. Its presentation of our failing capitalist structure is challenged only by the drunkard Captain of the ship (Woody Harrelson), who spouts Karl Marx quotes while Russian oligarch Dimitry spits back Ronald Reagan quotes. All it illustrates is that the film is incapable of presenting any actual meaningful ideology, merely offering parroted manuscripts from figureheads of opposing mindsets. We’re offered that late stage capitalism is comically stupid but also that Marxism is equally pointless because its only supporter in-film is a useless drunk who doesn’t understand anything he says.
Though Östlund’s film might successfully capture the visual splendor and lavish glory that the wealthy bathe in, effectively satirizing the absurdity of their hollow words and meaningless political positioning while they profit off the misery of others, its rote familiarity collapses all impact while its inability to understand or interrogate any of its implications create a directionless vessel destined for disaster. The film posits as progressive by commenting on the right things and poking fun at the right people but it incites nothing by being so bluntly singular in its messaging. It’s not interested in deconstructing any of the core structural failures or perhaps even deeper human nature that causes us to fall into these destructive patterns, and it’s not interested in revealing how these societal structures repeatedly beat down the impoverished and trap them in these harmful cycles. It is not interested in humanizing the poor and it is not interested in understanding the wealthy or even rightfully examining the avarice that leads to their seething disgust for humanity, leaving it in a disparate, disconnected void where all that’s left to do is chuckle at the rich people’s waste being regurgitated on top of their luxury and then leave, completely unchallenged. It might present a hazy, ambiguous ending in an attempt to make you believe the character dynamics were more meaningful than they really were, but just like the rest of the film, that’s all it is. Just visual gloss over a hollow core.