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  • Writer's pictureeclectic Stefan

Triangle of Sadness:”You can't eat money”

Controversy by its very nature is confrontational. Controversial films court extreme reactions depending on the subject matter, the imagery depicted, language, and/or offensive material of almost any kind that react to people's values and sensitivities.

These movies are not concerned with making audiences comfortable or appeasing their need to deal with the aesthetics of filmmaking. They are films that show the extreme indulgences and decadence that humans can exhibit. The most subversive elements are the ideas being explored. They are designed to shock and garner strong reactions. Controversial movies are capable of making audiences walk out of the cinema and/or protest outside movie theatres.

Controversial films focus on strong statements about the human condition and how humans can debase and exploit other humans to indulge their depraved desires. What any one of us considers controversial will depend on our view of the world and how it operates and whether what one considers controversial is offensive, unpleasant or necessary. Whether we view or choose not to watch such films will determine if we feel outrage and demand a movie is banned or never screened. Our reaction is specific to each of us.

In 2023, we are confronted by Triangle of Sadness, a film that challenges the audience with a direct assault on the senses with a 15 minute scene involving ultra-wealthy dinner guests vomiting and experiencing violent bowel discharges explicitly on screen after eating tainted seafood during a heavy storm at sea in a direct statement about how the ultra-rich and their lavish lifestyles are a sickness on the social fabric of our global society.

The trailer will give you the merest hint of what to expect during the dinner sequence. That’s as much warning as I can give you.

Official trailer Triangle of Sadness

Advisory: Contains graphic images of vomiting and diarrhoea

Regardless of whether you watch the movie based on the trailer, consider director Ruben Östlund’s purpose. Some readers will react with repulsion at the mere words “vomit” and “diarrhoea”, let alone watching the movie and the extended scene of sickness. That scene, however, is only one section of a longer three part movie about equality, class structures, relations between the wealthy and the workers, who rules the world and how the world operates.

Influencers, Posers & the Mega-Rich: Yaya, Carl & Dimitry

Traingle of Sadness is organised in three parts. In the opening section, we are introduced to Yaya and Carl, both models. Carl is auditing for a modelling job, while Yaya already has a position as a catwalk model for un upcoming fashion show. The movie director's exposition about social status and equality begins to display itself during the course of a fashion runway when signs flash the motto, "Everyone is Equal Now". That is exposed as a stretch of the way the world works.

Following the fashion show, as Yaya and Carl finish their dinners, they argue about who should pay the bill and gender expectations about their roles. It is in these early sections of the movie that we are introduced to the concept of the triangle of sadness.

The Golden Ratio & The Triangle of Sadness Explained

The meaning of “triangle of sadness” is referenced early in the movie during the model casting sequence. It is similar to but not as aesthetically pleasing ast he Golden Ratio. Design, architecture and photographic utilise the concept called the golden ratio.

The triangle of sadness is slightly different. It is a real-world term for the area between the eyebrows and the very top of the nose bridge. The area tends to develop wrinkles with age and emphasises negative facial expressions such as sadness or anger, even when the person's face rests in a neutral position. The term is relevant to the modelling/catwalk section of the movie as well as the three-way shape of the movie’s structure.


We then move to the second part of Triangle of Sadness. Yaya is also an influencer, who manages to claim a cruise aboard a 250 million dollar yacht along with a list of ultra-rich guests whose money comes from armaments, although they euphemistically call it manufacturing, fertiliser and IT. While aboard the yacht, Yaya is busy photographing herself eating a meal without actually consuming the food. It's all about her image and her ability to influence others' behaviour.

The crew coerced into being "equals" by the ultra-rich guests

The super wealthy guests gives themselves the ability to demand and get whatever it is they desire—food, wine, Rolex watches, jewellery— while subjugating the crew. Their wealth entitles them or so they believe. A wealthy Russian, Dimitry, is, in many ways, down to earth. In fact, he describes to us in his own words the source of his wealth, "I sell shit" (fertiliser). He comprehends the irony of how he earns his riches , while his wife and daughter indulge in the excesses of his wealth to the point where his wife demands the crew enjoy themselves by swimming in the ocean so they can, for a moment, reverse roles with the wealthy guests.

This is pure fantasy on her part because the crew is obliged to do her bidding like slaves in psychologically demeaning ways in order to get a huge tip at the end of the cruise and to avoid losing their jobs. She treats the crew like shit. There is no reversal of their positions. They are the workers who serve the wealthy. Equality is illusory.

Dinner is spewed, not served

The dinner scene featuring the wealthy purging themselves from all orifices becomes a levelling factor in a way that is unexpected by the guests. A battalion of attendants, including the head of services, Abigail, is forced to clean the bodily expulsions on their hands and knees. This scene leads to the concluding section of the film on a desolate island when the yacht is destroyed when attacked by pirates.

As a prelude to the yacht’s destruction, the yacht’s Captain and Dimitry indulge in ideological sparring. The Captain reveals Marxist beliefs while the Russian presents himself as a capitalist. They exchange quotes from Karl Marx and Noam Chomsky regarding who rules the world and how the world works.

This is where Triangle of Sadness becomes didactic in its delivery of communist and capitalist doctrines. The sequence is a polemic. Director Ruben Östlund gives us a lecture on class structures and the role of countries and ideologies that serve nations. The Captain and Dimitry quote directly from Marx and Chomsky in obvious way.

This happens throughout the movie. In the first section the phrase,”Everyone is Equal Now” splashes on the screen. There is nothing equal about the models on the catwalk, the organisers of the show who decide who gets selected and the designers who control the appearance of the garments. Equality is elusive and transient. As Napoleon the pig exclaims in Animal Farm, George Orwell's allegorical novel about totalitarianism, “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others“.

With exceptional clarity and power of argument, Noam Chomsky lays bare as no one else can the realities of contemporary geopolitics. Divided into four sections and originally published in the US as individual short books which have collectively sold over half a million copies, How the World Works is a collection of speeches and interviews with Chomsky by David Barsamian, edited by Arthur Naiman. It includes What Uncle Sam Really Wants, about US foreign policy; The Prosperous Few and the Restless Many, about the new global economy, food, Third World ‘economic miracles’ and the roots of racism; Secrets, Lies and Democracy, about the US, the CIA, religious fundamentalism, global inequality and the coming eco-catastrophe; and The Common Good, about equality, freedom, the media, the myth of Third World debt and manufacturing dissent.

Summary of How World Works by Noam Chomsky

The film lectures us about the divide between workers, owners, and the separation between the haves and the have-nots and the structures that maintain this inequity. The statements about equality and class struggles could have been done in a less blatant manner.

A role reversal occurs after the yacht is destroyed and the survivors find themselves on a deserted island. The overindulged wealthy guests are unable to find food or build a fire. They do not have the skills because everything has been done for them and all essentials of life have been provided by the workers, in this case, the yacht’s crew.

Abigail, the head of cleaning services on the yacht, has life skills. She can catch fish, start a fire and cook a meal to share with others. She does more than clean toilets as the wealthy expect of her. When they object to not receiving their share of the food, she replies that if they want food they can call her Captain. She is in control. The tide turns. The super rich learn to be subservient.

We are not all equal

Abigail controls the survivors; Carl is exploited by Abigail; the rich guests are unable to fend for themselves

Ironically, Abigail's ability to take control means that she has become the leader and commands others to do her bidding. She is not rich in monetary terms, but her wealth of skills and knowledge plus her strength of character allow her to get elevated to a commanding position. Corruption begins to seep into her behaviour, even to the point of providing shelter for Carl in exchange for sexual favours and food. Carl benefits in other ways when he begins to realise the shallowness of his relationship with Yaya and Abigail's traits.

Do things really change? Abigail is manipulative and coercive in her manners and behaviour. Perhaps her attitude and behaviour are essential if the group is to survive. Nonetheless, she changes, partly to show the wealthy survivor's what it’s like to lack control of their lives. When you are placed in a position of survival, you can’t eat money. You subvert yourself to the person who can feed you, keep you warm and provide a roof over your head.

The ending of Triangle of Sadness is odd, as if the director couldn’t decide how to end the movie. Abigail is about to commit a violent act that will ensure she retains her position of control and power or she can forego the violence and choose to save all the survivors. Has she been altered by her new found power or will her true selflessness surface, even if it means becoming a subservient worker again? That is the conundrum of Triangle of Sadness.

As an audience, we can rant against the excesses of the wealthy and powerful layers of society and the need for change or we may realise that anyone is susceptible to and may be seduced by the temptations and corrupt behaviours once we assume a position of control. Those temptations don’t need to be extreme. They may be as straightforward as flying business class for work when your colleagues are not afforded the same opportunity or receiving free concert tickets in exchange for reviewing an artist's latest album release.

In that sense, Triangle of Sadness is a valuable lesson in perceptions of what we can and might do if our lives and position in society changed, rather than it being only a diatribe about wealth, privilege and power.

And, of course, you will have to deal with the scenes showing the forcible expulsion of bodily fluids if you choose to watch the movie. Remember, you have been warned. It definitely makes a statement and is essential to the argument being proposed by Ruben Östlund. And it's controversial.

Controversial & Extreme: Movies That Confront and Challenge You

WARNING: If you choose to watch these movies, be forewarned that these movies contain graphic and/or extreme content.

There will not be any advice about where to watch them. That will have to be your deliberate, personal choice.

Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ (blasphemous), Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (graphic depictions of extreme violence), Pasolini’s Salo or 120 Days of Sodom (extreme depiction of human degradation as commentary on Mussolini’s fascist regime), Eat the Rich (rich diners eat at an exclusive restaurant without our realising the menu consists of other rich humans) and Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life (challenges religious orthodoxy and features a scene of a man exploding after over-eating—it’s a comedy and satirical) come to mind as films that have been received with disdain and outrage for religious, political and visually deplorable reasons.

Salo or 120 Days of Sodom has been banned in many countries. I managed to view it during a period when the ban was lifted at a film festival in Australia many years ago only for it to be banned again for “offensive cruelty with high impact” by the Australian Censorship Board.

Take note. That judgement is well earned.

It requires fortitude to view Salo or 120 Days of Sodom. Without doubt, watching Salo or 120 Days of Sodom is traumatic and not a choice made lightly.

We might be offended to the extreme with the visual depravity and cruelty shown in Salo or 120 Days of Sodom but that is intentional and exactly the film’s raison d'être to confront the depraved and monstrous actions of totalitarian regimes and tyrants such as Mussolini, Stalin, and Hitler and, in the years after the film was made, the murderous actions of Pol Pot and Idi Amin.

Audiences who watch films about real world genocide and brutal human experimentation shouldn’t expect filmmakers to display these atrocities in pleasant ways. It is counter to the filmmakers’ intent.

A film that satirises the military industrial complex and the threat of atomic annihilation but is generally seen as a masterpiece of satire and received positively by audiences and critics is Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Kubrick has had his share of controversy with films such as A Clockwork Orange (pyscho-sexual, brutal violence) and Spartacus (a homo erotic scene between Laurence Olivier and Tony Curtis was deleted due to its suggestive nature). The outrage by critics and audiences surrounding A Clockwork Orange caused Kubrick to withdraw the movie from public screening in Britain for decades after its initial release.

You may recoil from films like these or choose not to watch, but you should consider why they were made and the director’s intentions in presenting human brutality at its vilest, sometimes with artistic flourishes and uncompromising brutality.


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