The subject matter of director Ruben Östlund’s second Cannes Palme D’or winner, Triangle of Sadness, is—despite its graceful and nuanced execution—delivered with blunt force. The trauma vegetative-making, all gets symbolically pancaked. But who or what is pounding the mallet? This is where the film’s potent poesy lies. Is it the 1% smashing any traces of empathy for the lower entirety of the pyramid into ruddy flapjacks? Or those wanting to be the 1% taking a baton to the soft-skulled head of the world with their resentment and longing? And why is our species so often so cringe-soliciting?
Triangle of Sadness features a yacht full of very rich people, some of whom procured their wealth through ethically questionable means (shocking, isn’t it?) and a hetero-romantic couple (Harris Dickinson and the late Charlbi Dean), both of whom are models, on board because they’re beautiful and plan to Instagram the hell out of the finery and fabulosity. Things turn to shit (this is a jovial plot byproduct, literally and figuratively), Captain Woody Harrelson gets very intoxicated, pirates seize the vessel, and a swathe of survivors wind up on the shores of a deserted island, where the power structures are inverted with comic brutalism, and a middle-aged Filipino maid—hours prior cleaning the toilets of her new island compatriots—who knows how to fish, make a fire, and resource ration, becomes something of a hierarchical queen.
Perhaps the best thing about speaking with Swedish Ruben Östlund, whose most celebrated previous films, Force Majeure and The Square, presented satirical social contexts and our human-unique failure within them—is his chronic suppression of a smile or giggle, as he navigates having to speak instead. Here is a person who champions compassion and consideration for our neighbor, or those in society with whom we struggle to understand, but who also believes this can be accomplished through jest and jab at our fallibility and selfishness. And as this periling ball of gas known as Earth, and its villain-making tendencies, seems to only get more ludicrous every day, Östlund’s approach reminds us that humor and affinity may prove some of our most meaningful antidotes.
In a stylistically unsettling scene on the island, as despair amasses, a sort of impotent-seeming character (Henrik Dorsin), who earlier was offering to buy a pair of young, pretty ladies Rolexes on account of their joining him at the bar on the yacht for a drink—but is too shy to dance when asked in lieu of—bludgeons a donkey to death with a stone. The sound of the struggling animal, who requires numerous bashes before succumbing to the dark, is chilling. The faces of the group spectating are pained at the vulgar act. Alas, this is survival. The killer feels a sense of manliness, of self worth, maybe more so than ever, despite the many millions he’s earned. The idea of pain—and its often suppressed and ignored nature as it relates to cultural production and consumption—is blatantly extolled. I remark to Östlund, at the commence of our conversation, that viewing his film, at times, is somewhat akin to the donkey beating. He laughs, and we talk about society’s status incessancy, masculinity and beauty, and guilty pleasure.
Let’s talk about the donkey scene? It was so gratuitous!
It was actually the set designer who said maybe he has to hit the donkey more than one time. Because my idea was that they should just hit it once, and then they will be brave men, you know, and scream up to the sky, saluting their manhood. When she said that I felt, ‘Well, you’re completely right. It’s probably quite hard to kill a donkey.’ And very often when we portray killing animals—mostly by human beings—it’s kind of easy, but when you read, for example, in the news about murder, you will very often hear, ‘Yeah he got stabbed with four to five stabs,’ and it’s not because the person that is the murderer is absurd or a psychopath—they are already from the beginning, of course—but because it takes that many stabs to actually kill someone.
I was also looking into what some people are saying about the cave paintings done in The Stone Age—that they were dealing with the trauma of killing an animal, paying tribute to the animals, as well as creating a manual of how to kill.
The killing of the donkey demonstrates a will to live on its killer’s part, but the donkey’s resistance also demonstrates a will to live—a theme throughout Triangle of Sadness. Describe how mankind’s stubborn insistence on survival informed your process?
I became interested when I was doing research on people ending up in extreme situations, and survival situations, and groups of people being stranded on a deserted island, in that we humans are very good at collaborating. So, there is this myth, which is a little based on Lord of the Flies, that as soon as we are in this extreme situation, then we become uncivilized animals. And we are going to be violent and dangerous towards each other. But if you look at research, it is actually the complete opposite. In these situations, we are accepting of hierarchies, and we tend to collaborate and work really well because we understand that conflict is dangerous.
And then I was looking into the author that wrote Lord of the Flies, and he was a heavy alcoholic. His father beat him and he had a harsh upbringing. So it’s interesting, the influence on our thinking when we are trying to imagine these kinds of situations.
So is your sense, then, that once status is stripped away we have it in our spirits to be tender with one another, to do away with our differences?
I think in order to create equality in society—and equality when it comes to our behavior—is an ongoing struggle. It’s not something that will be solved in a communistic ideology, or socialistic ideology, or liberal society. And the film is really about the core transaction that I feel is between human beings—that of reproduction. And inequality, in that some people are born into a body that gives them an advantage or disadvantage.
What does your relationship to this idea of production and reproduction—outside of the kind of human exchange—say in the film? There is of course the explicit implication of Karl Marx, who was preoccupied with notions of scale and production.
I heard something very interesting. It was from a young man that lived in East Berlin before the wall came down. And of course, living in East Berlin, you were also a part of hierarchies on the West side. And he describes going to West Berlin, and he encounters this large perfume ad, with this woman and, like, luxurious lingerie, and his sexuality… it just died. He felt, ‘Aha, okay, here it is so outspoken that I have to buy that in order to get access to her beauty.’ So he felt that in the West Berlin, the female was like currency, and this was okay when it came to socializing people. It was like one person walking from one world to another world. It didn’t gradually get to him—he became shocked.
One thing that I really admire about Marx is that he was one of the inventors of sociology. And sociology is beautiful because it’s there to look at the human beings when they fail. It doesn’t put guilt on the individual. It shows the context that can create a certain kind of behavior. And in our times, I think that it’s something that is definitely needed. We are so focused on having a protagonist or antagonist. Even when we are news reporting, we want the bad guy and the good guy.
And it’s funny, because we tend to say, ‘If Jeff Bezos is such a bad billionaire, why can’t we just replace him with a good billionaire?’ And so I think, from the first film I’ve done, I always want to put individuals’ behavior in a context where we get an understanding for our mistakes.
Through mistakes, the film subverts how we think about reproduction with an emphasis on male beauty. How does beauty intersect with masculinity here?
I think that what my three last films, in some way, are dealing with being a man in contemporary times. And I didn’t want to put too much emphasis on male models, but I was surprised—why do we call them ‘male’ models, and not just ‘models’? Of course, there is a cultural expectation and a cultural prejudice against the male models that they are stupid because they are beautiful. And it surprised me, you know—the male models really have to fight this prejudice against them.
Society does love its ‘types.’
You know, we like to consider rich people as egoistic and non spiritual. And we we like to consider poor people as generous and spiritual. It’s almost a way for us to balance out the inequality. If you see a very beautiful person, that person is going to change the group dynamics in the room when they enter the room. And maybe our way to reduce a little bit of the inequality that occurs is to put a stamp on that person. So that was a little bit of my starting point. And I think the starting point also came a little bit with the #MeToo movement. Because the beauty of a woman is much stronger currency than the beauty of a man—it’s easier for a woman to exchange her beauty for money or status. Like, you know, the term ‘trophy wife,’ for example. And I thought it was interesting that we didn’t really discuss this—the currency of female beauty and sexuality. And I felt it’s quite good if we shift it over, and we can have this economical discussion, but we can project it on a man instead, because then it’s not everybody wrapped in, like, guilt by association.
And of course, the film presents a scenario where power has restructured. In one instance, there is this hiding of the romantic ‘transaction,’ right?
If the two in hiding were open about being a couple, then others would probably have to accept it. Because then we can use “love” as the headline of the social contract. They love each other and therefore they can do these ‘transactions.’
And if the romantic pairing is not conventional, then perhaps we assume shame?
Yes, exactly. I think it’s interesting: if you meet a couple where there are differences in how they look—one is extremely beautiful and the other one is not, then you’re always like, ‘Ok, what kind of transaction is going on here? What the fuck?’ For example, I deal with this in a film that I made called Play—where five Black boys are robbing three white boys—and the fact that we don’t want to admit that class is connected to skin color. We want to we want to believe that the world looks like an Apple commercial.
The film crescendos with that Fred Again.. / Blessed Madonna song, which features the refrain, “We’ve lost dancing.” The sound bite suggests this pandemic removal from the dance floors, a loss of social intimacy. But of course, the song commences at a moment that depicts another major paradigm shift that is about to occur within the survivors. So maybe that’s the ‘dancing’ that’s about to be lost? What do you think?
I actually wanted to use a song… What do you call it? A guilty pleasure? You like it, but you, at the same time, have a little problem of liking it? Because you have this beautiful moment on this beach with Abigail, and the elevator doors are opening. And then the music that was playing in the elevator, I wanted it to show a little bit what’s going up on the roof up there, with the pool. And it’s going to be a complete world where Abigail doesn’t have a role. So it would probably be like Nikki Beach, Club 55, or something like that in Saint Tropez. And so I wanted to, in some way, have a song that is telling us about that world—that as an older person, you really don’t fit in, in that environment up there. And then at the same time, I think the song is really good. With all the respect for the musicians—because I’m happy that they allowed us to use it in the film—there’s something about this kind of music… I mean, I also used Swedish House Mafia in Force Majeure… that makes me cringe a little bit.
Photographed by Andres Gar Lujan
Written by Matthew Bedard
Styled by Gorge Villalpando
Groomer: Teresa Salas
Photo Assistant: Xim Ensenat
Producer: Paula Gutiérrez Abarrio