Crowd Pleaser

Ruben Östlund’s Palme d’Or winner.

Ruben Östlund was awarded the Cannes Film Festival’s top honour this year, winning the Palme d’Or for Triangle of Sadness. He joins a rarefied group of directors – one that includes fellow Swede Alf Sjöberg, Francis Ford Coppolla, Emir Kusturica, Shohei Imamura, the Dardenne brothers and Ken Loach – to have won the award more than once; he now has as many as all female directors combined. Following Michael Haneke and Billie August, he is the third director to receive the award for back-to-back films, having also won in 2017 for his fifth film The Square. The two projects are not so differently shaped: while The Square looks at the art world and the wealthy idiots who inhabit it; Triangle of Sadness begins with the fashion world before moving on to wealthy idiots more generally.

It makes a funny kind of sense that these two films have been so well received at Cannes. The festival is one of hyper-opulence, with its red-carpet, black-tie premieres held in the Grand Théâtre Lumière, a two-thousand-seat palace wedged neatly between superyachts and luxury hotels. By awarding Östlund the Palme, the jury can position themselves as in on the joke: we know you’re mocking us, but we’re laughing, too. Wouldn’t he rather they boo? Östlund does not appear overly concerned with social change; his films are less satire than farce. He treads the careful line of the court jester – wanting to make the king wince while he giggles, just not enough to risk his own head. ‘I believe that rich people are nice,’ Östlund explained in one interview about Triangle of Sadness. ‘There’s an ongoing myth that successful and rich people are horrible, but it’s reductive. I wanted the sweet old English couple to be the most sympathetic characters in the film. They are nice and respectful to everyone – they just happen to have made their money on landmines and hand grenades.’ The film has rather too much sympathy for its wealthy subjects. Its underlying premise seems to be that whether rich or poor, we’re all the same – all driven by the same interest in self-preservation – which perhaps explains why Östlund never draws blood.

Told in three parts, Triangle of Sadness begins with a largely superfluous send-up of the fashion industry. Taking its cues from Sacha Baron Cohen’s Bruno (2009), it doesn’t stray much further. An obnoxious television personality invades a casting call and has the male models smile or frown depending on what brand they represent. Expensive clothes require sorrow; cheap ones, joy. Among the models is Carl (Harris Dickenson), who, aged 25 in real life, may be aging out of the industry. The frown lines above his brow become the title of the film, after one casting director asks if they can do something about his ‘triangle of sadness’. Carl is dating Yaya (Charlbi Dean), an Instagram influencer who makes far more money than he does – modelling being the rare industry where women earn more than men. This is cause for conflict in their relationship, with Carl advocating a quasi-feminist equality to escape from paying the bill. Östlund’s intervention here is meant to be on the terrain of gender politics – wouldn’t it be crazy if men relied on their looks? – but this opening section has little payoff. Mostly, it begs the question of what constitutes a prostitute, with Carl and Yaya selling their bodies in different ways.

Following an excruciating argument about whether money-talk is ‘sexy’, we next encounter the pair on a luxury cruise, made possible by Yaya’s follower-count. On board are billionaires of differing detestability. The least offensive seems to be modelled on Markus Persson, also known as Notch, the Swedish game developer who sold Minecraft for $2.5B in 2014. He has plenty of money but lacks social skills, at one point offering to buy Yaya a Rolex for the meagre kindness of appearing in a photograph. Other billionaires include the aforementioned English couple, who thankfully meet a fitting end, and a charismatic Russian who, having made his fortune from a manure monopoly in Eastern Europe, calls himself the ‘king of shit’. Then there are the underlings, a crew with its own hierarchy: the non-white janitors, technicians, and cooks; the front-facing white women who pour champagne; an obsequious crew captain who tells her team to ‘think of the money’ when things get tough; and the ship’s captain (Woody Harrelson), who enjoys reading Marx and getting drunk.

The second act culminates with the Captain’s Dinner, where spoiled guests are served spoiled food during a spell of bad weather. They naturally end up quite sick. The sequence was the most uproarious I encountered at Cannes, prompting several minutes of laughter, as well as sending a few queasy press members running for the exit. But though a night of vomiting and diarrhoea, complete with exploding toilets and fecal floods, might seem appropriate punishment for arms dealers and other malefactors, Östlund does not intend for the sequence to be merely a moral comeuppance: ‘the audience should feel that they have suffered enough and want them to be saved’, he explains. More sympathy for the devil? Pirates then invade the floating microcosm and send it belly up. A select few from the ship survive and make it to a nearby island – Carl and Yaya, the crew captain, the tech nerd, the Russian oligarch, a janitor named Abigail, and a few others. Here, society is dramatically reordered. When it becomes clear that Abigail is the only one with any practical skills – a joke at the decoupling of wealth from genuine value – she eagerly takes on the role of a despot, offering each islander an extra portion of octopus if they agree to bend the knee. The Russian recites some wisdom from his school days in response: ‘From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.’

Marx is rarely more than a punchline in Triangle of Sadness. This is in spite of Östlund being raised in a left-wing family and seeming to know the texts quite well. A retired schoolteacher in Sweden, Östlund’s mother remains an active member of her nation’s Communist party and sometimes strays into party-independent activism as well – such as when she asked her son to film an anti-NATO video in 2016. Östlund agreed, describing her commitment to this cause as ‘admirable and important’. He has not always felt so at ease with his mother’s politics: ‘Mum had books by both Marx and Lenin, and when friends came around, I’d turn the Lenin books around so that the spines were hidden. I understood that they were controversial in the eyes of others.’ That fear of offending the wrong people seems to have persisted. If his mother’s views had an uneven impact on Ruben, they made even less impact on his brother, who became a member of Sweden’s conservative-right. Östlund speaks of his time at the dinner table as one of being between two political extremes: ‘I am used to strong discussions about these two Western-Eastern ideologies’. A scene in Triangle of Sadness reverses this staging, pitting a Russian capitalist against an American communist: the king of shit against the ship’s captain. Drunk and locked in the captain’s quarters, the two take turns reading choice quotes from their phones – Thatcher versus Edward Abbey, Reagan versus Mao. It’s not a bad way of portraying most political debates today, but the effect is to position Östlund as the enlightened centrist, smarter than either side.

The Square provoked criticism from some left-wing critics, which Östlund felt was unfounded. ‘They want a sentimental portrait of poor people’, he claimed. ‘That’s bullshit! Poor people are living in tragedy. And their awful circumstances can create bad behaviours. I worry sometimes that some left-wing people misunderstand Marx.’ Östlund considers his approach a sociological one, which depicts individuals operating within a collective whose structures shape their behaviour. ‘If I look at what I learned from home, the one really useful thing was the analysis of Marx and his theories. That society comes from our position in an economical hierarchy. And that how we behave is determined by where we are according to the concept of production.’ For Östlund, ‘how we behave’ seems specifically linked to his preferred form for examining ‘society’, the comedy of manners, where in his most recent films, conflict arises from the incongruity of a class structure that forces upper and lower to mingle in the middle. His wealthy are well-mannered, his poor are often not, and this is meant as some ironic subversion of the cruelty inherent in the system.

Triangle of Sadness’s shipwreck might well undo all this, but instead what it presents is the persistence of ruthless social hierarchy – we may question whether here Östlund himself misunderstands Marx. In its progression from superyacht to survivor-island, the film suggests that we’re all foremost driven by greed and that capitalism, therefore, is merely an outgrowth, and natural conclusion to this uniquely human impulse. This is the West’s founding myth: that rationally self-interested individuals have been engaging in acts of truck, barter and exchange since the dawn of history, and that this process is inherently capitalistic. Despite appearances, therefore, Östlund films are ultimately less concerned with institutions or structures than the apparent verities of human nature. Barbarism is figured as a kind of blastema; manners, as dressing for the wound.

The Square and Triangle of Sadness both stage their best sequences during ritzy dinner parties. In the former, an artist enters the room acting as a gorilla, terrorizing the wealthy diners to the extent that they eventually pin him to the ground and beat him. Another descent into savagery. Is the artist here meant to represent Östlund? It’s hard to imagine his films provoking such animosity. They go too far to flatter their subjects; exploitation is figured as merely something awkward for all those involved. It may be incorrect to call the director a court jester – Lear’s fool, after all, spoke truth to power, acted as the king’s conscious, was the smartest in the room. Östlund, I fear, is more like a clown for hire, harmlessly squirting water in people’s faces, crafting intricate but hollow animals from balloons, smiling widely as he toots his horn. He’s just happy to be at the party.

Read on: Göran Therborn ‘Twilight of Swedish Social Democracy’, NLR 113.