The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘Triangle of Sadness’ satirizes the 0.01 percent, with queasy glee

Woody Harrelson stars in Ruben Östlund’s darkly Buñuelian comedy of excess

Charlbi Dean, left, and Harris Dickinson in “Triangle of Sadness.” (Neon)
(3.5 stars)

Since the arrival of his breakout hit “Force Majeure” in 2014, Swedish writer-director Ruben Östlund has proved a fearless, if uneven, purveyor of canny social criticism. In “Force Majeure,” he set his sights on gender politics and expectations, as they played out between a couple on a swanky ski vacation. In 2017’s “The Square,” Östlund skewered the hypocrisies and hyperventilating self-importance of the contemporary art scene.

With “Triangle of Sadness,” Östlund is returning to form, with all the strengths and flaws his now-distinctive narrative style entails. There are few filmmakers working today who are as eager to tackle life as we know it — without benefit of superheroes, pseudo-medieval mythologies or lockstep genre conventions — and give it a swift satirical kick where it hurts. If Östlund’s movies lack discipline — if his films overstay their welcome, become baggier, blowzier and more tiresome as they round the two-hour mark — they still leave the viewer grateful that somebody out there is engaged with a world that can be at least remotely described as real.

In “Triangle of Sadness,” that world is the echelon of the 1 percent — or, more accurately, the 0.01 percent. After a section introducing Yaya (Charlbi Dean) and Carl (Harris Dickinson) — two gorgeous fashion models — Östlund sends them on a cruise on a luxury yacht, where Yaya enlists Carl in her pursuit of the perfect selfie, the better to further her career as a social media influencer. They befriend other passengers — a Russian fertilizer magnate played with gravelly garrulousness by Zlatko Buric, a British couple tellingly named Winnie and Clemmie (Oliver Ford Davies, Amanda Walker) — and play their parts as the photogenic lumpen-rich while the hard-working crew literally keeps the operation afloat while trying to remain as invisible as possible.

The balancing act comes undone with the onset of several reversals, not least of which involves the ship’s captain, who for much of “Triangle of Sadness” remains locked in his cabin listening to “The Internationale.” Once he emerges, watch out: The captain is played by Woody Harrelson, who delivers a career-defining performance as a man on an alcoholic and ideological bender that only grows more extreme over the course of a fateful seafood dinner.

Fans of “The Square” won’t be surprised when that white-glove feast turns into a Buñuelian spectacle of excess and grotesquerie. Östlund spares his characters nothing as he punishes their heedlessness with scene upon scene of graphic seasickness, a sequence that goes on seemingly forever, to increasingly bilious effect. It all ends not with a whimper but with a bang — firmly directed at the British Empire at its most mercenary — then relocates the action to a far different locale, where a crew member named Abigail (Dolly De Leon) upends the upstairs-downstairs dynamics in a primal, grittily amusing reversal.

Östlund demonstrates his usual sharp eye for mannerisms and mores. The title of “Triangle of Sadness” derives from the film’s opening scene, in which Carl and his fellow models attend a casting call, during which the director explains that high-end designers are “grumpy brands” while affordable lines are “smiley brands.” (When you see it in action, you realize it’s true.) Later, Carl and Yaya have a protracted argument about sex, money and the politics thereof that is recapitulated throughout “Triangle of Sadness” in ways both subtle and obvious. Beauty, status, wealth and gender norms all become scrambled in Östlund’s critique of the unspeakable disparities that characterize life in the neoliberal order, and the equally obscene apathy that unearned privilege affords.

Buñuel isn’t the only inspiration here. Fans of Lina Wertmüller’s “Swept Away” will recognize thematic echoes, given a sharp twist within Östlund’s Darwinian world of transient power and transactional loyalties. As destination noirs go, “Triangle of Sadness” is right up there with “The White Lotus” in its skewering of inequality and obliviousness. As an ensemble, Dickinson, Dean and Harrelson commit to the bit with admirable abandon, with De Leon delivering a bravura turn as a woman levelheadedly claiming her due. As always with Östlund, his most profligate flights of fancy tack close enough to reality to ring queasily true.

R. At area theaters. Contains coarse language and some sexuality. 150 minutes.

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