Yaya (Charlbi Dean Kriek) and Carl (Harris Dickinson) fight and snap at each other throughout their introduction to us in Triangle of Sadness. Their conversation revolves around paying the bill at a fancy dinner; other topics such as power dynamics in their relationship and gendered expectations in relationships are broached as the conversation expands. They round out the argument in a hotel room, exasperated but still committed and in love with each other. The very first two scenes in the film revolve around their status in the world: he is a struggling model and she is an influencer on the rise. Even though there are other people watching them and interacting with them at intervals during the aforementioned argument scenes, the way the camera moves and the editing make us feel like they are in a separate world of their own. These scenes orient us to their footing in their careers, but the other part of their introduction is more about their meaning to each other. Part I feels insulated and intimate, the almost complete opposite of Part II, where the world is opened to us and new characters are introduced. Yaya and Carl become a microcosm of the superyacht trip they join, and though we are largely laughing with them at some of the other guests they encounter during their trip, we are also seeing the less favorable sides of them too.
The superyacht all the characters find themselves on functions as a societal model of economic hierarchy. The crew are in a luxury job and if they succeed at wining and dining these wealthy clients, they can receive a great tip at the end of the trip. The largely Filipino staff work under them and are tirelessly cleaning the ship every day with no thanks from anybody, while the workers in the engineer room are an afterthought. The clientele hold all the power and do or say exactly what they want without any repercussions. Even while it seems like Paula, the head of staff, is in full control of everything, she is powerless to refuse a guest who demands all staff to take a dip in the ocean. The staff both upstairs and downstairs are working to provide an incredible trip for these guests, but to the guests they are almost invisible with very little agency.
When a shipwreck occurs, we see the previous power dynamics shift on the island the survivors end up on. In past media about shipwrecked people or survival (Cast Away, The Wilds), the experience reveals so much about people and their ability to stick together. In Triangle of Sadness, the survivors do band together, but there’s still a hierarchy at play on the island with a leader and abuses of power. The film is much less about the triumph of humanity and more about the unsavory underside of it or how power changes people.
There’s no singular villain or antagonist; while we can poke fun at certain people or their behavior, they aren’t inherently evil. While Paula does denigrate many of the staff she deems below her, we see her grapple in dealing with the unruly captain who she attempts to wrangle every day and who doesn’t take her seriously. The captain (Woody Harrelson) and his blasé attitude affect other staff members who are trying to just do their jobs, but when he has to chat with the guests at dinner and must answer their inane questions, we grit our teeth with him. The film is primarily a critique of society and where we assign value. This cast of characters can be abhorrent, insane, and grating, yet we never forget that they are just people. While they are following the rules of a social order they didn’t invent, they are continuing to perpetuate it. So how much culpability do they have? Are they enforcers or victims of society? These are the questions that the film leaves you to answer for yourself.
Noni Ford is a freelance writer based in the Midwest and a graduate of the Indiana University Media School. She’s worked in voice coordination, independent film, and literary management, and primarily writes film criticism and short stories. She’s currently pursuing a Masters degree at IU’s Luddy School and is an IU Libraries Moving Image Archive Fellow.