Saturday 5 November 2022

Three hours in a leaky boat: "Triangle of Sadness"

Ruben Östlund is going up in the world. As recently as a decade ago, the Swedish writer-director was making small sociological experiments with participants you didn't recognise (because they were often amateurs) and titles that needed explanation (Involuntary, Play, Force Majeure). These pointed, provocative investigations led to 2017's amusing artworld satire The Square, a self-consciously big picture that won the Cannes Palme d'Or the way undertaking certain research lands you the Nobel Prize. This, in turn, has unlocked a budget big enough for 
Östlund to retrain his sights, in his latest project, on the international yachting set, and to welcome a major American star (Woody Harrelson) on board as the captain of a gleaming ship of fools tossed suddenly to the elements. Triangle of Sadness runs 147 minutes to The Square's 151, but everything else about it feels more expansive - more inflated - yet. It opens with a recreation of a fashion event that demonstrates much the same verisimilitude as the artworld happenings in The Square, then settles in for a fifteen-minute argument between dim-bulb rich kids (Harris Dickinson and Charlbi Dean) over the payment of a restaurant bill. On and on it goes, at first excruciating-funny because so banal, then just banal, then plain dull, then duller by the second. Around minute five or six, I began to groan internally: here are characters you wouldn't want to spend thirty seconds in a lift with, let alone two-and-a-half hours on the high seas. As the pair settled their differences and the boat carrying them (and far uglier representatives of the 1%) finally cast off, I found myself glancing nervily back in the direction of the receding shoreline. Getting on for three hours, Ruben? With these fuckers?

I'll spare you some time and trouble by saying you could show up an hour late for Triangle of Sadness and miss absolutely nothing of significance. The first act is a further extension of Östlund's trademark cringe comedy - along the front row of that fashion show, among influencers, between moneyed passengers and overworked, underpaid crew. Yet the fieldwork on this particular voyage is newly imprecise, the methodology increasingly slapdash. In Involuntary and PlayÖstlund engineered situations that were flinty, revealing, discomfiting. Now, with a Palme d'Or in his back pocket and a newfound coterie of producers on hand to applaud his every choice, he contrives long scene after long scene without ever alighting on more than minor passive-aggression. The characterisation and dialogue's not as funny as it once was, it's nothing very much to look at (where The Square at least had that art to fill the gaps between its bug-like characters), and the editorial line is persistently obvious, pitched at great volume towards the idiots in the back. Those earlier films were often naggingly ambiguous, leaving its scenes as open to viewer interpretation as any other set of real-world data. Here, it's clear almost from the off that the director no longer trusts the audience to arrive at their own conclusions - that's presumably why he has the Dickinson and Dean characters buzzed by CG flies on the sundeck. (They're shit, ha.) There's no science left in Triangle of Sadness; and as art, it's iffy, to say the least.

Granted, Östlund is still good for a setpiece, and here's one area where the extra cash must have helped. To Force Majeure's avalanche and The Square's apeman interruptions, Triangle adds a turbulent captain's dinner, in which the waves lashing the boat's exterior are matched by the violent fits of vomiting inside. (Thematic rationale: with consumption this conspicuous, something's got to come back up.) It's not clever, and it sure ain't pretty, especially when the boat's overburdened loos get in on the act, but it's something, I guess - and you can sense the film's most fervent supporters clinging to this eruption of gross-out energy in the face of that nothingy first hour. In the grand scheme of things, however, it's no more than a pivot. Where it redirects us, as deflation sets in again, is a symmetrically dull third act: a Survivor episode with less compelling participants that attempts a simplistic overturning of the status quo, before the kind of non-ending you can get away with after winning the Palme d'Or. (Of course these characters survive the shipwreck - they're such hollow constructions they can only float - but now we're stuck on an island with the fuckers. It's Cast Away with no Hanks and seven volleyballs.) I can understand why Cannes, with its long history of indulging the indulged, went gaga for it; in France, remember, they hold La Grande Bouffe as dear as we Brits do the Paddington movies. Yet Triangle of Sadness washes up here as but 2022's most illustrious example of how cinema is being comprehensively outflanked by television: there's nothing in Östlund's film that wasn't offered far sharper treatment, in digestible 50-minute bites, by Mike White in HBO's The White Lotus. Now with two Palme d'Ors to his name, Ruben Östlund really is going up in the world. But at what cost to the rest of us?

Triangle of Sadness is now playing in selected cinemas.

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