CANNES FESTIVAL: Ruben Östlund makes his return to the Croisette with “Triangle of sadness,” biting satire about our times

CANNES, France — “Triangle of Sadness” is a comedy about fashion, trends, social media influencers, how to set yourself apart but not too much, the enduring power of social hierarchies, the #metoo and virtue-signaling maelstroms.

The pitch for “Triangle of Sadness” goes like this: the film starts in the fashion world, then the action moves to a cruise ship to finally end on a deserted island, with a male and a female model at the center. At some point in the cruise ship sequence, a Marxist will get drunk with a Russian oligarch and share philosophical talking points.

We are all equal.

Ruben Östlund, who won the Palme d’Or for “The Square” in 2017, is back on the Croisette with a film with which he is less inclined to probe into our tormented soul, as he did in “The Square,” or his previous effort, “Force Majeure.”

We are all equal.

“Triangle” lacks the narrative ambition of “The Square” or the astringent intensity of “Force Majeure”–let’s not mess around, this new film is only playing for laughs, nothing else–but what with the congeries of themes contained in it (the fashion world is a little loopy / vomit vomit / it’s funny when people get drunk and talk about philosophy / diarrhea / modern human is useless on a deserted island and will die / feces) I’ll wager there’ll be something in it for everyone (that is, everyone not squeamish and eager to have a good laugh).

“We are all equal” is a phrase repeated throughout. A wealthy socialite (Sunnyi Melles) vacuously says the phrase as she sits in a jacuzzi, on the cruise ship and a stewardess is watching her, amused, willing, ready–the customer is always right–to deliver whatever she’ll ask–champagne, peanuts, oysters?

The socialite asks, tells, the stewardess, “go put on a bathing suit, you should go for a dip, too!” The stewardess, worried an unscheduled break, to go dive in the ocean no less, will jeopardize her employment on the ship, not only gets persuaded to follow through with this but the socialite coaxes the ship’s entire staff, some scowling, most frowning, down the ship’s tobogan and into the sea. The bourgeoisie virtue-signaling through using peons as playthings. Is it brilliant? I don’t know, but it’s Ostlund. And it’s the scene is funny.

Yaya (newcomer Dean Charlbi) and Carl (Harris Dickinson), are models and Instagram influencers. Social media influencers construct their virtual image in order to have an impact on, and grow, an audience. It’s hard work.

Before going on the cruise, paid for through their influencing efforts, Carl is at a screen test for a fashion shoot (the scene where the art director’s assistant gets Carl and the other participants to alternate between striking an H&M ad pose, smiling and family-friendly, and a Balenciaga ad pose (scowl! attitude!) is genius).

The two later end up in a restaurant together. An argument between the two regarding who should pick up the tab awkwardly takes place. The venue is elegant so the damage is likely high. Just as soon the waiter delivers the bill to the table, Carl, a prince, picks it up, but he also notices that Yaya doesn’t react, at all, she’s typing on her telephone, and this unnerves him. Dropping the princely act, Carl, now looking both petty and modern, confronts Yaya about it. The argument grows heated, voices go louder, then settle, a while. Then Carl restarts it. It’s funny and it’s jarring, funny-jarring.

During a presser in Cannes Ostlund said, “I wanted to create a roller-coaster for adults, something that challenges, too, an experience. I really wanted the audience to have fun with it.”

Going back to the cruise ship, one of the performances that stuck the most with me is that of Chief Stewardess Paula, played by Vicky Berlin. She was perfect. Berlin inhabited the character, a character who spends a lot of time trying to get the Captain, who’s holed up in his cabin and is drinking, to agree to a day for the captain’s welcome dinner to be held, everyday except for Thursday, a day when there’s weather coming in. Of course, she ends up settling on Thursday because talking loudly through a closed door with a drunk ship captain is not easy.

Danish actress Berlin has worked extensively as a writer for television and has a few film credits to her name. Her notoriety will be improved even more with this english-language film, and that’s a good thing. Her Paula is very Scandinavian, all strained smiles and beaming face, her sophistication.

Ostlund is apparently a perfectionist, an average of 23 takes were done for every scene while shooting “Triangle of Sadness.” Ostlund also brought a large gong to set and would call the start of every scene with a loud “boom.”

Not probing our tormented soul, it’s just as well. Laugh is laugh, so it’s a happy recommend for “Triangle of Sadness.”

Yaya (Charlbi Dean) and Carl (Harris Dickinson) in a scene from “Triangle of Sadness”

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