How to eat the rich
TRIANGLE OF SADNESS director Ruben Östlund on his scabrous satire
OF ALL THE films to rip into the wealthy and privileged lately — and there have been a fair few — none have been as scathing, or as funny, or indeed as pooey, as Triangle Of Sadness. It’s a black comedy about an ensemble of eccentrically terrible rich people whose luxury cruise ends in shipwreck and ignominy. In his Englishlanguage debut, writer-director Ruben Östlund found numerous routes to satirise the mega-rich and the mega-thick — as he explains here.
STRIKE A POSE
The opening sequence, which sees Carl (Harris Dickinson) and a gaggle of male models forced to demonstrate the difference between luxury-brand poses (sultry, serious looks) and high-street fashion poses (cheesy smiles), was a concept plucked from real life. “My wife is a fashion photographer,” says Östlund. “She told me that the more exclusive the brand gets, the more that smile disappears. It’s almost like the model is looking down on the consumer — they’re communicating that these brands are positioning themselves at the top of the hierarchy, and you can also buy yourself a position up at the top of the hierarchy if you buy these clothes.” It’s a playful and cheeky way to start, but these opening scenes are central to the film’s main themes. “Our clothes are basically a camouflage that we pick according to which social group we feel connected to,” Östlund says. “I thought this could bring up aspects of the film that I thought was interesting — this idea of beauty as a currency.”
Poor Carl earns another humiliation in an excruciating early scene, which sees him bicker with his fellow model and girlfriend Yaya (played by Charlbi Dean, who tragically passed away last year, aged just 32) over who pays the bill for a restaurant meal. Again, this was something based directly on Östlund’s real life. “Not my proudest moment,” he chuckles. “When I was quite early in my relationship with my wife, I wanted to impress her, but at the same time, I didn’t want to be a sugar daddy!” The scene is based, almost beat-for-beat, on an argument the couple had where Östlund’s future wife expected him to pay for the meal. “The bill is on the table,” he recalls, “and immediately she says, ‘Thank you, honey, that’s so sweet of you.’ All of a sudden, I feel I’m forced to pay, right? We’re both trapped in a certain kind of gender expectation — of how we should be treated and how we should treat each other. That evening played out pretty much the same way as it does in the film.” (Östlund and his
wife now use an app to split the bill at restaurants, which he describes as “so fucking unromantic”.)
ROCK THE BOAT
The middle section of the film takes place entirely on a luxury yacht, where Carl and Yaya — as ambassadors for the online influencer culture — join a gaggle of super-rich weirdos on the high seas, each billionaire more grotesque than the last. Östlund took a research trip on an actual cruise to mine for material. “There were some very interesting stories from the yachting culture,” he says. “That is a very absurd culture, I must say.” He borrowed dialogue heard from real life — including the wealthy passenger complaining about the “dirty sails” — but some stories were too ridiculous, even for Östlund. “On one yacht, in the master bedroom, they had a jacuzzi. It provoked a certain kind of behaviour from the guests: quite often, they wanted to fill up the jacuzzi with champagne. One guy even wanted to put goldfish in it. So then the crew were like, ‘Okay, maybe it’s not a good idea to have a jacuzzi in the master bedroom.’”
TAKE THE PISS (AND MORE)
The film reaches a body fluid-heavy crescendo with the now-notorious 20-minute sequence where the passengers on the yacht suffer from violent seasickness during the captain’s dinner. Vomit, diarrhoea and raw sewage fly every which way; an orgy of scatologia of the kind “that the world of cinema has not witnessed” was Östlund’s goal. It was an extreme plan baked in from the start, he says. “I wrote in the script, ‘I want to push this scene ten times further than the audience expects.’ I wanted the scene to go to a certain place where even the audience will feel they’ve had enough — and at that point, it would be when we realise that they start shitting.” Audience reactions have ranged from laughter and schadenfreudian delight, to walk-outs at its Cannes premiere, to more physical reactions still. “I only heard about one person that vomited when they saw it,” reports Östlund. “It’s not the most important thing. But it makes me happy.”
DO THE HARD SELL
The satire continued even after the film was completed. Continuing the punk-ish, rebellious spirit of the film, Östlund encouraged an unconventional approach to marketing and advertising. Neon, the film’s distributor in the US, offered free Botox (conditions applied) to any ticket holders (a campaign Östlund approved of as “brilliant”). They also ran a billboard on a busy highway in Los Angeles that simply proclaimed, “I SELL SHIT” in giant letters, with actor Zlatko Burić posing in character as Russian oligarch and sewage-salesman scene-stealer Dimitry. “You could call a number and then you would get through to [a recorded message from] Zlatko, saying, ‘Buy our shit with your beautiful capitalist dollars!’” Well, where there’s muck, there’s brass.
TRIANGLE OF SADNESS IS OUT ON 20 FEBRUARY ON DVD, BLU-RAY AND 4K