Review: ‘Triangle of Sadness,’ starring Charlbi Dean, Harris Dickinson and Woody Harrelson

October 8, 2022

by Carla Hay

Charlbi Dean and Harris Dickinson in “Triangle of Sadness” (Photo by Fredrik Wenzel/Neon)

“Triangle of Sadness”

Directed by Ruben Östlund

Some language in German and Russian with no subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place mostly somewhere off the coast of Greece, the comedy/drama film “Triangle of Sadness” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with one black person and one Filipina) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A dating couple, who are both young fashion models, must navigate conflicts over gender roles in their relationship, which is put to the test when they end up stranded on an island with other people from a luxury cruise yacht. 

Culture Audience: “Triangle of Sadness” will appeal primarily to people interested in a story that lampoons how youth, good looks, gender and wealth are used in social climbing and perceived power.

Arvin Kananian and Woody Harrelson in “Triangle of Sadness” (Photo by Fredrik Wenzel/Neon)

The darkly comedic “Triangle of Sadness” is an incisive satire of social class prejudices and gender-based power dynamics. The cast members’ skillful performances outweigh the movie’s flaws, such as a story that sometimes rambles and has a vague ending. “Triangle of Sadness” tells a memorable if uneven story about how constructs of power are frequently built around superficial qualities such as physical looks, youth and wealth, and how those constructs can radically change in life-or-death situations.

Written and directed by Ruben Östlund, “Triangle of Sadness” is a movie that is meant to make audiences laugh at uncomfortable truths and near-parodies of how people conduct themselves when they are in the presence of wealth and power—and what people are willing to do to have wealth and power. “Triangle of Sadness” had its world premiere at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival in France, where it won the Palme d’Or, the festival’s top prize. The movie also made the rounds at other film festivals, including the Toronto International Film Festival, Fantastic Fest and the New York Film Festival.

“Triangle of Sadness” is told in three separate parts. “Part One: Carl and Yaya,” “Part Two: The Yacht” and “Part Three: The Island.” The first two parts of the movie are really just introductions to the various people who end up stranded on an island off of the coast of Greece, after a yachting disaster. The last part of the movie is the most intriguing part, but it’s also the part of the movie that will be the most frustrating to viewers.

“Part One: Carl and Yaya” shows the relationship the London-based couple at the center of the story: Carl (played by Harris Dickinson) is British, in his mid-20s and is a former mechanic who now works as a fashion model. Yaya (played by Charlbi Dean) is originally from South Africa, in her early 30s, and is also a fashion model. Carl and Yaya have been dating each other for less than a year. (Tragically, Dean died on August 29, 2022, of septicemia, the medical term for blood poisoning, which came from an untreated lung infection. She was 32.)

Carl is first seen during a casting call audition for a runway show. He and other male models, who are all shirtless, are being interviewed by a flamboyant social media personality named Lewis (played by Tobias Thorwid), who openly flirts with the models. Lewis asks Carl and the other models to show the different facial expressions that they use for haute couture modeling (a serious face) and commercial mass merchant modeling (a smiling face).

When Lewis yells out “Balenciaga,” Carl and the other models put on their serious faces. When Lewis yells out “H&M,” Carl and the other models put on their smiling faces. Lewis keeps repeating “Balenciaga” and “H&M,” and the models keep changing their facial expressions, like they’re robots being ordered to do someone’s bidding. It’s the movie’s way of showing how models are often treated like robots.

When it’s Carl’s turn to go in front of the judging panel, a snooty male casting agent comments to Carl about the middle of Carl’s forehead: “Can you relax your triangle of sadness?” In the production notes for “Triangle of Sadness,” writer/director Östlund comments on why he chose this phrase as the title of the movie.

“It’s a term used in the beauty industry,” Östlund says. “A friend sat next to a plastic surgeon at a party and, after a quick look at her face, he said, ‘Oh, you have a quite deep triangle of sadness… but I can fix that with Botox in 15 minutes.’ He was referring to a wrinkle between her eyebrows. In Swedish, it’s called ‘trouble wrinkle,’ and it suggests you’ve had a lot of struggles in your life. I thought it said something about our era’s obsession with looks and that inner well-being is, in some respects, secondary.”

It’s no coincidence that the central couple in this movie are models in the fashion industry, which places a high value on youth and outer beauty. Modeling is one of the few jobs where women make more money than men. And because Yaya’s income is much higher than Carl’s income, this disparity has caused some problems in their relationship.

The problems become evident when Carl and Yaya have what is supposed to be a romantic dinner at a restaurant, but this date devolves into an argument over who is going to pay for the dinner. Carl has flown out to visit Yaya, who’s on a modeling assignment. And he’s been consistently paying for their meals during this trip.

But at this particular dinner, Yaya had offered to pay, and Carl accepted the offer. When the bill is placed on the table, Yaya pretends that she doesn’t see it and silently puts the responsibility on Carl to pay the bill. When he reminds her that she offered to pay for the dinner, it leads to a disagreement that isn’t really about the bill about it’s about power and control in the relationship.

Carl says that if women want equality, they should be willing to pay for dates on occasion if they offer to do so. Yaya agrees to pay for dinner. Carl concedes that he didn’t mean to raise his voice with Yaya and tells her, “Now, I feel bad.” However, Yaya gives a passive-aggresssive insult to Carl when she tells him, “It’s okay. I make more money than you.”

And then, it’s Yaya’s turn to be embarrassed. The credit card that she uses to pay for the dinner is declined. And so, Carl ends up paying for the dinner in cash. On the cab drive back to their hotel, Carl wants to talk about this money issue, but Yaya doesn’t. She tells Carl: “It’s not sexy to talk about money.”

Carl replies, “We shouldn’t slip into the same gender-based roles everyone else seems to be doing. I want us to be equal.” Carl won’t let the issue go, and he confronts Yaya about something that he saw her do at the restaurant: She took a €50 bill that was meant for the dinner payment, and she kept it for herself.

It leads to an even bigger verbal blow-up between the couple, who end up shouting at each other in the hotel elevator. Eventually, Carl and Yaya call a truce, but they both know that the argument isn’t about the money for that dinner. Yaya admits that she’s materialistic and says that one of the reasons why she became a model was to become “someone’s trophy wife.”

Yaya also confesses that she purposely ignored the restaurant bill when it was placed on the table because she really wanted Carl to offer to pay for dinner. Yaya tells Carl, “I need to know that if I fall pregnant that the person I’m with will take care of me.” All of these comments are Yaya’s obvious ways of telling Carl that if he eventually doesn’t make more money than she does, she’s going to lose interest in him.

In the “Triangle of Sadness” production notes, Östlund says that this argument over who would pay for dinner happened in real life with him and his fashion photographer wife, Sina, before they were married. Ruben and Sina Östlund might have had a happy ending after this argument, but things are much rockier for Carl and Yaya. The first part of the movie is focused on this argument as a foreshadowing of some turmoil to come.

In “Part Two: The Yacht,” Carl and Yaya have been invited by one of Yaya’s fashion connections to go on a luxury cruise on a yacht. Yaya is a social media influencer, who makes money by endorsing products and services on her social media accounts. During this trip, she fulfills these sponsor obligations by posing for photos on the yacht, with Carl as her photographer.

This part of the movie introduces several other people on the yacht and puts further emphasis on the social class divisions that separate the yacht’s subservient workers and the yacht’s privileged passengers. Carl and Yaya eventually meet several of these other passengers, some of whom are quirkier than others. Carl comes from a working-class background, and he often feels like he doesn’t quit fit in with these people who are accustomed to being rich.

Not long after their yacht trip begins, Carl and Yaya meet Dimitry (played by Zlatko Burić), a Russian agriculture mogul who made his fortune from selling fertilizer. Dimitry is on this yacht with his snobby and demanding wife Vera (played by Sunnyi Melles) and his mistress Ludmilla (played by Carolina Gynning), who is young enough to be his daughter. Dimitry and Vera seem to have an open marriage, because Vera and Ludmilla know about each other and hang out together with Dimitry on the yacht. Dimitry likes to brag to other people about how he became wealthy in a “rags to riches” story, but there’s a nouveau-riche crudeness in the way that Dimitry talks and acts.

An elderly British married couple named Winston (played by Oliver Ford Davies) and Clementine (played by Amanda Walker) are very polite and proper, but viewers might perceive these seemingly harmless senior citizens differently when it’s revealed why these spouses are rich. Another couple on the yacht are German spouses Uli (played by Ralph Schicha) and Therese (played by Iris Berben), who uses a wheelchair because she had a stroke. Uli is very attentive and devoted to Therese, who is mostly mute, except for when she utters the only words that she seems capable of saying: “in de wolken,” which is German for “in the clouds.”

Later in the movie, Yaya and Ludmilla meet a lonely, rich bachelor named Jarmo (played by Henrik Dorsin) at the yacht’s main bar. Jarmo invited a woman to be his companion on this trip, but she stood him up for this date. Jarmo wants to show this woman that he’s having a good time without her, so he asks Yaya to take a photo of him at the bar, because he wants to send the photo to the woman who snubbed him.

When Yaya and Ludmilla hear Jarmo’s story about the woman who rejected him, they both offer to take a selfie photo with Jarmo, so that Jarmo can send a picture looking like he’s having fun with two beautiful women on this yacht. Jarmo is so grateful, he immediately tells Yaya and Ludmilla, “I’m very rich,” and he offers to buy Rolex watches for Yaya and Ludmilla as thank you gifts. They both decline the offer, but it’s an example of Jarmo’s insecurity in thinking that he has to tell people that he’s rich, in order to impress people and buy friendships.

The yacht’s workers include a perky yet no-nonsense staff director named Paula (played by Vicki Berlin), who is a combination of a task master and a cheerleader for the employees. Paula is fanatical about the ship remaining tidy and orderly, and she tells the staffers to say yes to anything that the passengers ask them to do. Paula also leads the employees in pep talks and group chants to build team solidarity and loyalty.

Two other yacht staffers are a maid named Abigail (played by Dolly de Leon) and a repairman named Nelson (played by Jean-Christophe Folly), who are mostly in the background during “Part Two: The Yacht,” but their personalities emerge during “Part Three: The Island.” Abigail and Nelson are two of the few people of color who work on the ship, and they are both given jobs where they don’t interact much with the passengers. Observant viewers will notice that on this yacht, only white employees have the jobs that require the most interaction with the passengers.

The movie shows an example of how far Paula wants her employees to go to please the wealthy passengers on the yacht. A young and relatively new employee named Alicia (played by Alicia Ericksson) is asked by Vera to go for a dip in a jacuzzi with her, while Alicia is on duty. Alicia is reluctant to do so, but she also remembers that Paula ordered the staff to always say yes to a passenger’s request, no matter how unusual or difficult the request is.

Alicia doesn’t have a swimsuit with her at that moment, but Vera says that Alicia can strip down to her underwear. Vera can see that Alicia is uncomfortable, but Vera doesn’t seem to care. Eventually, Alicia obliges this request. But when Paula hears how reluctant Alicia was to say yes to this request, Paula overcompensates by ordering the entire staff to go on the water slides with the passengers.

The yacht’s leader is Captain Thomas Smith (played by Woody Harrelson), who is a drunken mess. In the “Triangle of Sadness” production notes, Östlund describes the captain as “an idealist, an alcoholic and a Marxist.” Paula and the ship’s first mate Darius (played by Arvin Kananian) spend considerable effort trying to get the intoxicated Captain Smith out of his room in time for the captain’s dinner with the yacht’s most influential and richest passengers.

It’s at this dinner when all hell breaks loose. Something causes the passengers to get sick and violently vomit. Things get worse when the yacht explodes and not everyone makes it out alive. It’s enough to say that the people who do survive end up stranded on a remote island. (This isn’t spoiler information because it’s in the movie’s trailer.)

Being stranded on this island strips away a lot of the social hierarchies and perceptions of power that existed on the yacht. This third and final part of the movie has some twists and turns that make “Triangle of Sadness” worth watching. However, because this major shift in the story comes so late in the movie, much of it feels crammed-in and rushed.

With a total running time 149 minutes, “Triangle of Sadness” could have used tighter film editing. The movie took a little too much time with “Part Two: The Yacht,” which is a bit repetitive in showing how these vacationers take their privilege and social status for granted. “Part Three: The Island” also has some scenes that wander, although the scenes in the last third of the movie have more of an overall purpose. Despite these imperfections in the movie’s film editing, the dialogue in “Triangle of Sadness” remains sharp and engaging.

Dickinson and de Leon give the movie’s standout performances as Carl and Abigail. On the surface, Carl and Abigail both seem to have very little in common. But beneath the surface, they both have something big in common: They feel like underappreciated outsiders in their own worlds. And they both show some rebellion and resentment as a result of feeling like they have been denied access to things that they think they deserve.

The very last image in “Triangle of Sadness” can be interpreted in many different ways—and that open-endedness at the movie’s conclusion will either frustrate some viewers, or it will invite viewers to come up with theories about what really happened at the end of this story. Despite this ambiguous ending, “Triangle of Sadness” has a lot of interesting commentary and observations about why society’s divisions between the “haves” and “have nots” can affect how people treat each other—and how these divisions are often based on shallow criteria that do not truly reflect someone’s inner character.

Neon released “Triangle of Sadness” in select U.S. cinemas on October 7, 2022.

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