Triangle of Sadness: Ruben Östlund’s Biting Satire of the Rich and Insta(Famous)—Top Winner of 2022 Cannes Film Fest

Cannes Fest 2022: Five years after winning the 2017 Palme d’Or for The Square, Ruben Östlund was back at the Cannes Film Festival with another biting satire, Triangle of Sadness.

By earning the top prize of this year’s edition, Östlund joins a select group of directors, such as Francis Ford Coppola, Shōhei Imamura, and the Dardenne brothers, who have received the prestigious award twice.

While his last film skewered the art industry, Triangle of Sadness draws a bead on the world of high fashion and what the director calls “the global 1 percent.” The film’s title refers to the term plastic surgeons use for a Botox treatment to fix wrinkles between the eyes.

Harris Dickinson and Charlbi Dean star as a super-model couple who come from nothing–beauty is their only ticket to the high life of the rich and famous. In the course of the story, they are left stranded on a desert island with a group of billionaires and a cleaning lady after a disaster strikes their luxury cruise. In their fight for survival, social and economic hierarchies are quickly turned upside down

Critics in Cannes were divided about Triangle of Sadness, with some lamenting how Östlund had abandoned the subtlety and sophistication of his prior work for a blunter and more ribald and farcical brand of social critique. while others praised the film for doing just the same.

Even so, the movie’s timely and entertaining dunking on the mega-rich, as well as a winning turn from American star Woody Harrelson, speak well for a broader commercial appeal than that of the director’s previous efforts.

Film’s Long Journey

Ruben Östlund: It was a little bit of post-success syndrome after The Square. Some directors, when they get a bit of success, they become slower and the balloon of their next project gets bigger and bigger. The budget for this film is almost twice the budget of my previous films so it took longer to finance it.

And then, of course, there was the pandemic. We had to make two stops in production because of COVID-19, waiting and re-planning. The combination of post-success syndrome and COVID are responsible for taking five years to make this movie, instead of the usual three, which is my normal working rhythm.

Challenges?

It was a challenge to my stamina to stay focused on the content of the film for two more years. But it ultimately helped, because it allowed me to work longer on the script. The stops with COVID helped too. The conditions improved the feature because it’s a quite complex one. he narrative has three very different parts: It starts in the fashion world, then moves to a luxury yacht, and it ends up on a deserted island.

Inspiration for Triangle of Sadness?

I have to credit my wife Susanna, who’s fashion photographer. When I met her, I wanted to hear everything about her work and the fashion industry–to get an insider’s perspective of that glamorous and eccentric industry. I had an outsider’s perspective and thought that the world was very cynical. When she began telling me facts and stories about that industry, it got me very interested in examining the notion of physical beauty as the new currency.

If you are born beautiful, it can help you climb up in our society, even if you don’t have money or education. Beauty can be the one thing that really helps your social mobility. Most of us are brought up by our parents saying ‘looks aren’t important, but obviously we live in a world where looks are very important, even more important today, in the digital image world, than ever before.

Male Model?

I got specifically interested when Susanna told me about the male models, who earn only a third or a quarter of what female models get. Additionally, they have to maneuver amongst the powerful homosexual men in the industry who may want to sleep with them. Sex can be a door opener also for a successful career. This idea of sexuality and beauty as a currency for men is intriguing, because we usually see women dealing with such issues.

Young Beautiful Couple as Protagonists?

I decided to start the film with a male-female model couple dealing with the fashion world and its impact on their identities. The male model is on his way down and he is dating a female model who’s on her way up. Neither of them comes from money, so beauty serves as their ticket to higher society. They get invited onto a luxury yacht because the woman has a huge Instagram following–she is an “influencer.”

Instagram as Digital Marketplace for Beauty Currency

I found a survey given to five-graders where they asked them: ‘Do you want to be beautiful, or do you want to be intelligent?’ And shockingly, many of them said they’d rather be beautiful.

But if you look at models today, they don’t only have to be beautiful, they need to be their own marketing tools. In order to get work, you need more than millions of followers on Instagram. Otherwise, you’re not even invited to casting auditions. This economic structure has drilled down to the individual level. You are your own brand, your own marketing channel, your own entrepreneur, all of which lead to—and then become– your persona.

Last panel in Trilogy of Force Majeure & The Square

I never planned it as a trilogy, but when I started looking at the films’ contents and their male characters, I realize they are all struggling with the expectations of what means to be a man, with manhood and masculinity, with the social role and the cultural expectations of being a real man.

Gender Roles

In Triangle of Sadness, there’s a scene, the “bill scene,” in the first part, where the male model and the female model are at a chic restaurant and the female model says: ‘I’ll treat you.’ But when the bill comes, she doesn’t pick it up.

In my own life, when the bill arrives, I have to look at it. And then, immediately, the woman sitting across from me says, ‘thank you so much.’ So I have no other option but to pay. This actually happened to me and my wife. But I liked her so much that I needed to take the bull by the horns and tell her what I’m feeling, and how uncomfortable I was with this stereotypical gender bias. I said: ‘when you say thank you, you don’t give me any option, but to pay.’ And she said: ‘we can split the bill if you want, take out the calculator,’ and there was so much shame for me in that situation. I felt like I lost my manhood just in bringing this subject up.

There’s always a clash between who I want to be as a man and the situation in which I find myself. A lot of scenes in these three films are based on “uncomfortable” situations that I myself–and many other men–have experienced.

Absurdity about Being a Man in Today’s World

Quite often I feel trapped in the culture that we live in. I want to be somewhere else but cultural expectations are forcing me into a narrower or darker corner. There’s a dilemma between what I want to do and what I feel that I have to do. The absurdity comes from my writing. I deliberately write scenes that make it as hard as possible for the characters to deal or to express. I try to corner my films’ characters, while also making a sociological investigation of my own behavior. I always try and change the parameters to make it harder and harder. But I always remind myself that, however absurd it might seem, it must be believable for the characters to do what they do. That said, I don’t want to be too specific about how the characters behave; I want to allow the feeling that all men, and all women, can identify with those situations.

Difficult Scene to Shoot?

I had an idea that the Marxist captain on the ship would hold his captain’s dinner during a storm–sort of revenge on the super-rich guests that complicate his political worldview. We have seven-course dinner where, slowly, the passengers get seasick and start throwing up. We built the ship’s interior, the corridor and the dining room, in New York. We put it on a gimbal to be able to tilt it 20 degrees both ways, and the furniture was actually sliding across the room. As people get more seasick, and the captain more drunk, he ends up reading from the Communistic Manifesto while everyone is puking around him. That was a big task and it took a long time to shoot and to edit it properly.

Casting the Leads, Harris Dickinson and Charlbi Dean?

I did a lot of casting, in Berlin, Paris, London, New York, L.A., Stockholm, Copenhagen, the Philippines. In my auditions, I like to sit with different actors and play one of the parts. So in the “bill scene,” I’d play the woman, or the man. Then I wait until I really feel there’s a dilemma for the actors, where I can see they’re struggling with their morals, ethics, and expectations, and how to express them in a creditable way.

Harris Dickinson just did a fantastic improvisation when we were doing this “bill scene.” Charlbi Dean came to Sweden and also did a great improvisation–she knew exactly what to say and how to say it to corner a man.

 

Woody Harrelson

I was just curious to work with Woody Harrelson. I have loved him ever since I saw his work with Milos Forman (The People vs. Larry Flynt) and Oliver Stone (the controversial Natural Born Killers). But when casting, I need to be able to say: ‘I’m confident you can play this part well. It will be fun and challenging but I’m taking full responsibility that you’ll deliver a great performance.’ I rarely give out a part to actors just because they’re famous or big names.

Film’s Message?

I wanted to probe in a satirical and entertaining mode our ultra-materialistic view of the world, where our daily behavior is so dependent on the capitalistic setting that surrounds and dominates us.