Sunday 4 December 2022

The Current Cinema - Rod Bishop examines The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeois–sea in TRIANGLE OF SADNESS (Ruben Östlund, Sweden and nine other countries, 2022)

Woody Harrelson, Triangle of Sadness

In the second act of this year’s Palme d’Or winner, a group of obnoxious,wealthy passengers on a $250 million yacht, skippered by an unhinged, alcoholic and dysfunctional captain (Woody Harrelson) sit down to fine-dining at the Captain’s Dinner. 

The yacht starts to wallow in a progressively strengthening storm and a lengthy sequence of vomiting and exploding toilets follows. 

Sight gags aside, as the mayhem swirls around them, a Russian businessman, who has made his fortune from manure (“I sell shit”) and the captain take over the yacht’s public address system and drunkenly trade quotations from Kennedy, Reagan, Twain, Thatcher, Marx and Lenin.

Passengers cringe in walkways in vomit-strained life jackets, avoiding floating excrement, runaway tables and other falling passengers, as the captain rants over the PA with “something that I wrote”:

My government murdered Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Bobby Kennedy and John F Kennedy. My government overthrew good, honest, democratic leaders of the people in Chile, Venezuela, Argentina, Peru, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Panama and Bolivia. Along with Britain, we carved up the Middle East, creating artificial geographical boundaries and installed puppet dictators. War, itself, became our most lucrative industry. Every bomb that’s dropped makes someone a millionaire. You don’t have to know where those bombs are exploding. You don’t have to see the grieving mothers and the mangled bodies of their children”.

The last few sentences are overlaid with images of a pirate boat armed with grenades and automatic weapons silently approaching the luxury yacht.

So begins the third act, as a handful of these wealthy survivors make it to a tropical island only to discover one of the yacht’s employees, a Filipino “toilet manager”, is the only one capable of catching fish and making a fire.

After the setups, the second and third acts suffer from our ability to telegraph what comes next. But the first act is more intriguing. Two runway models – he and she – are in a relationship. She earns more money than he does (female models do) and she is also a social media influencer with a decent following. When she allows him to pick up the dinner bill one night (she’s distracted and texting), he confronts her about the inequalities in their relationship. The dinner bill dispute escalates and suddenly consumes all of their lives – will they survive this First World problem? Or will a cruise on a $25 million yacht revitalize their relationship?

After his similarly acerbic The Squarein 2014, this social satire from writer-director Ruben Östlund wasn’t universally acclaimed at Cannes. Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian described the film as “an unworthy winner” of the Palme d’Or:

There were no ideas in it that had not already been aired more subtly, more rewardingly, and yet also more powerfully in his previous film The Square, and it seemed very shallow to me”.

Östlund’s win places him a rare club of dual winners of the Palme d’Or - Coppola, Haneke, Kusterica, Loach, Imamura, the Dardeenes, Sjöberg and August. Does he deserve to be there? Does anyone really care? After all, Godard, Varda, Bertolucci, Tarkovsky and Bergman never once won a Palme d’Or, let alone two.

And the title? The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeois–sea would have been better.



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