CANNES, France — Fashion models, Instagram influencers and Russian oligarchs collide on a yacht — and some very extreme sickness ensues — in Ruben Östlund’s “Triangle of Sadness,” a social satire that had viewers at the Cannes Film Festival in hysterics.
The Swedish filmmaker’s latest, co-starring Woody Harrelson as a Marxist boat captain, has made one of the biggest splashes at this year’s festival. At its premiere Saturday evening, there were such waves of laughter and applause that Östlund on Sunday compared it to a crowd at a soccer match.
Östlund has already found an international audience for movies that take an uproarious, uncomfortable aim at money, masculinity and other big social targets in films like the Alpine marital drama “Force Majeure” (remade as “Downhill,” with Julia Louis Dreyfus and Will Ferrell) and the art-world satire “The Square,” which won the Palme d’Or top prize at Cannes in 2017.
But in his first English-language film, and with a budget twice that of “The Square,” Östlund wanted to go even further with his particular brand of “rollercoaster for adults” cinema.
“I wanted to do something that’s worth leaving your home and leaving your screens, leaving the streaming services you have at home,” Östlund said ahead of the film’s premiere. “I didn’t want to get stuck in the art house part of cinema-making. I was really looking into that I felt I enjoyed watching myself. And the project I was thinking about had a wild set-up.”
“Triangle of Sadness,” which is playing in competition for this year’s Palme d’Or, is named after a term in the fashion world for a triangle-shaped crease between the eyebrows. The first third of Östlund’s film follows a male model played by Harris Dickinson and his influencer girlfriend portrayed by Charlbi Dean who argue over picking up a check after dinner.
Other riffs on fashion follow, but “Triangle of Sadness” moves into another gear in its second act, when they take a trip on a luxury yacht captained by a drunk socialist (Harrelson). The boat’s uber rich tourists include weapons makers and a Russian fertilizer magnate played by Zlatko Burić.
“Triangle of Sadness” reaches a comic crescendo when the seas turn rough, and an elaborate dinner ends up a farce of vomiting — and worse — while the captain and oligarch debate politics.
“During my upbringing, East and West were hitting their heads against each other,” says Östlund. “All of a sudden, we’re back in that in some way.”
“I was brought up in a home where you talk about society and a lot of the ideas that influenced the politics in the ’60s,” says Östlund. “Marx has been someone that’s present in discussions in my home. If you talk about human behavoir and you have a materialistic viewpoint on why we behave as we behave, then it becomes almost impossible not to talk about class.”
Harrelson has quickly become a great fan of Östlund. On Sunday, he told reporters that making “The Triangle of Sadness” was a “revitalizing” experience and announced that he’ll be in Östlund’s next film, whether the director wants him or not. (The plans are genuine. Östlund said the film will be titled “The Entertainment System Is Down.”)
“He can make you extremely uncomfortable,” Harrelson said. “He makes you think. He can give you a sense of meaning, like there was a purpose to seeing the film — and perhaps more importantly, he makes you laugh throughout. Which is quite a trick.”
Östlund granted that winning the Palme d’Or previously added pressure to making “Triangle of Sadness.” But given the enthusiastic response from festivalgoers, Östlund could find himself in the mix again for Cannes’ top prizes.
“It was a possibility to really try out what you were dreaming about and not limiting yourself,” the director says. “For us, it was a chance to combine the best parts of American cinema with the best parts of European cinema, to do something with intellectual content and do it in an entertaining way.”