Triangle of Sadness

Carl (Harris Dickinson) is the de facto protagonist of Triangle of Sadness, in that he is the only middle-class character in the film. A well-meaning if dull male model from England, Carl is told early on by a fashion mogul that he has a "triangle of sadness" – that is, a crease between his eyebrows – which, it is inferred, will keep him from ever becoming a top model, i.e. rich. It doesn't help that Carl's manipulative girlfriend Yaya (South African actress Charlbi Dean, whose sudden death three months after this film premiered at Cannes lends a literal sadness to the proceedings), a model/influencer, makes more money than he does yet expects to be spoiled by him. Whether out of stinginess or a genuine yearning for equality, Carl's argument with Yaya over who should pay for a fancy dinner is what we could call "classic Ruben Östlund" – it's hilariously awkward and thoroughly rooted in reality. Like the antiheroes of Östlund's previous features Force Majeure and The Square, Carl is a white Western male who has no idea what it means to be a man in the 21st century.

The second part of the film – it unfolds in three chapters, another sort of triangle – takes place upon a luxury yacht. Yaya has been gifted a cruise for two, provided she documents it on her high-follower Instagram account. As the only two free riders, she and Carl are also the youngest passengers aboard; everyone else is older, far wealthier, and blithely corrupt. The crew consists of attractive white Europeans above-deck and ignored Southeast Asians below-deck, with the lone American being the yacht's permanently drunk captain (Woody Harrelson, perfect as usual), an avowed Marxist who barely leaves his cabin.

I won't give anything away, but suffice to say the cruise takes a very, very bad turn, which leads us to the film's long third chapter. Östlund doesn't follow typical dramatic structure: many characters are introduced, then never seen again; not every setup has a payoff. Yet it all feels very true to life, in all its sloppiness – Östlund is a master of his craft, and even when it meanders, his work never feels directionless.

Triangle of Sadness shares common ground with Mike White's HBO series The White Lotus. Each delights in skewering the privileged, who despite their entitlement can't find happiness even when they're paying for it, and find themselves utterly helpless when faced with an unexpected crisis. This film is meaner and more overtly political than The White Lotus, and has a much more ambiguous ending – a double ambiguity, in fact, concludes the film – which may frustrate the viewer in the short term but is ultimately the only proper finale. Unlike White, Östlund couldn't possibly tack on a happy ending for his characters, yet he can't just glibly dispatch them either. Given the complexities of today's class warfare, it's only right that we leave these people hanging in the moment, uncertain of the future and their place in the world.