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Nathan Weinbender reviews Triangle of Sadness

Triangle of Sadness, the most recent Palme d’Or winner at the Cannes Film Festival, is a comedy dripping with venom and spite, an outlandish, occasionally disgusting satire about outlandish, disgusting wealth.

The title is spoken near the beginning of the film in reference to a male model’s furrowed brow, but it also echoes the very structure of the movie: three chapters of absurdism and class warfare in which the elite are forced to debase themselves in increasingly disturbing ways.

It begins as two models — Carl (Harris Dickinson) and Yaya (the late Charlbi Dean) — bicker about money. Yaya is the breadwinner of the couple, because in the world of modeling, women make more money than men. But when she doesn’t immediately offer to pick up the tab at a restaurant, Carl feels doubly emasculated: It’s not enough that he’s making less money, but he’s also expected to pay for dinner? Must they uphold such outdated gender roles?

Chapter two follows Carl and Yaya onto a luxury yacht. They’ve gotten a free ride because of Yaya’s Instagram influence and are easily the youngest adults onboard. There’s chaos brewing below deck from the moment the ship leaves harbor. The Marxist captain (Woody Harrelson), barely able to contain his contempt for his passengers, is stinking drunk the whole time. And then there’s the centerpiece of the film, as the ship hits a storm during a dinner service where some of the food has also spoiled, coating the dining room with the kinds of explosive bodily functions usually reserved for a Farrelly brothers comedy.

The film’s third act sees the yacht attacked by pirates, which strands several passengers and some of the crew on a desert island. This is when the tables are turned in the fashion of William Golding: Abigail (Dolly De Leon), part of the yacht’s cleaning staff, turns out to be the only castaway with even a shred of survivalist skills, and suddenly a member of the proletariat gets a taste of the autocratic.

None of these observations about class and wealth is particularly revelatory, but the brilliance of Triangle of Sadness comes not from its insights about the idle rich but from the sheer glee it gets in knocking them down the ladder of privilege, rung after glorious rung. And yet the film’s scorn isn’t merely reserved for the richest of the rich, because it understands that corruption only comes with power, and that human nature is innately corruptible.

Writer-director Ruben Östlund is perversely fascinated by scenarios in which the veneer of polite society cracks like fissures in ice. His breakout Force Majeure was about a vacationing family who, following a freak accident at a posh ski resort, watches its foundation crumble. His follow-up The Square, an ambitious, bloated takedown of the European art world, shot at targets in all directions and only hit about half of them.

Triangle of Sadness doesn’t have the precision of Force Majeure, but its focus is more finely honed than that of The Square. It is proudly in the tradition of Pier Paolo Pasolini (himself a Marxist), who merged the baroque and the scatalogical in his eviscerations of Italy’s ruling class, and of Luis Buñuel, whose best work imagined high society descending into animalistic squalor.

Triangle of Sadness is a movie about the inherent absurdity of luxury; how the foundation of society is built upon transactions — financial, cultural, sexual; how precarious our foothold on social order truly is. It’s incredibly depressing, but it’s also incredibly funny. This is satire with all the subtlety of a hand grenade, which is precisely what the 21st century deserves.
Nathan Weinbender is a co-host of Spokane Public Radio’s “Movies 101” heard Friday evenings at 6:30 here on KPBX.