Ruben Östlund won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 2017 with his modern-art satire, The Square. Five years on he returns to Cannes with another satire, Triangle of Sadness, and it’s even better – a frontal assault on the super-rich, and on the capitalist system in general, which has enough rage and riotous abandon to compensate for its lack of subtlety.
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Actually, that’s not entirely fair, because although Östlund makes his points with unapologetic frankness, the Swedish writer-director’s first English-language film shows that he is still capable of quietly uncomfortable, penetrating social comedy. This is what we get in the opening scenes, when the film appears to be a straightforward lampoon of the fashion industry. In advertising shoots, notes Östlund, the more expensive the brand, the more grumpy the models have to pretend to be. As for the title, the “triangle of sadness” is the term given to the frown lines between your eyebrows.
The poor soul who may need Botox to treat his own triangle is Carl (a superb Harris Dickinson), a gangly male model who would like to be intellectually and politically progressive, but whose better instincts are always overtaken by his insecurities. His girlfriend Yaya (Charlbli Dean) is a model, too, but because she is female, she gets paid much more than he does – so why is she so slow to pay the bill at a fancy restaurant? The couple’s disagreement on this matter could have come from an episode of Seinfeld, but Östlund doesn’t ease the tension with a punchline. Just as he did in his breakthrough film, Force Majeure (which was remade in America, incidentally, with Julia Louis-Dreyfus from Seinfeld in one of the starring roles), he keeps the argument going well after the stage that most directors would have given up and moved on. It’s an excruciatingly funny reminder that Östlund is cinema’s king of the awkward situation, but it also sets up the question which will recur throughout the film: why is it that some people are deemed to be more worthy of money than others?