Ruben Östlund looks at ‘beauty as currency’ in the Palme d’Or-winning ‘Triangle of Sadness’


Ruben Östlund’s latest Palme d’Or-winning satire, “Triangle of Sadness,” is as fierce as it is funny. More importantly, Östlund hopes it starts a debate on societal structures.

For the two-time winner of Cannes’ highest prize, political discussions about society have always been a part of his upbringing. “One thing that I wanted to deal with in the film is the very simple explanation that ‘rich people are mean and poor people are nice’ is unfortunately not true. Rich people are nice but, if you’re poor, it’s probably a bigger risk of you being a bad person,” he said in an interview ahead of the movie’s Toronto International Film Festival premiere.

The first English-language film from the Swedish director follows models Yaya (Charlbi Dean) and Carl (Harris Dickinson), a couple on a cruise for the ultra-rich that soon becomes chaotic. Woody Harrelson co-stars as the captain of the ship.

The title of the film comes from cosmetic surgery, said the director. “It’s when you have a wrinkle in between your eyebrows and in Swedish it’s called trouble wrinkle; you get it when you’ve had a lot of trouble in your life. I have one because I make feature films and it’s so much work,” he laughed.

“I was having dinner with a beauty surgeon and all of a sudden she said, ‘Oh, I can see a very deep triangle of sadness. No worries, we can fix that with Botox in 15 minutes.’ It says something about our times …” he said.

“I wanted to look at beauty as a currency. We have these two models and it’s obvious that beauty is their profession, that’s where they get their money. Then I was looking at it from a couple’s relationship point of view where … the woman’s beauty is currency in the relationship. Then I want to take you to a deserted island and see what happens when there is no wealth anymore. It’s a fight for survival. How would a male model use his currency if a woman twice his age, like the Filipino lady (in the film), is on top?”

The filmmaker’s approach is to attack the individualistic ideal. He credits Karl Marx and “the way he made us look at human beings, which is groundbreaking … he was also one of the inventors of sociology. Sociology looks at the context that creates a certain behaviour and I love that approach,” Östlund continued.

“Our behaviour is changing because of which position we have in our financial structure. So if we are on top, there’s a risk that we start to abuse power. If you are at the bottom, then it is probably a risk that if you’re cornered you can do something that may be criminal. So he was looking at our behaviour from a behaviouristic point of view and didn’t point fingers at the individual. That, I think, is so simplistic. And I think in our times, we are obsessed with pointing fingers at individual people.”

Charlbi Dean tragically died on Aug. 29 from a sudden unexpected illness at just 32 years of age. Remembering the South African actor and model, Östlund said, “She had a certain kind of positive energy. She was a team player that was lifting up her colleagues and the crew … I was looking forward to spending time with her in Toronto. So it came as a shock for everyone in the crew.

“She could give so many nuances and it’s always precise,” the 48-year-old filmmaker said. “So she was really working hard. It would be so fantastic if she was here now (to) share this experience together.”

Östlund, who previously directed “Force Majeure” and his other Palme d’Or-winning film, “The Square,” was excited to bring “Triangle of Sadness” to Toronto. “I love the North American audience because they participate when you have a screening. When you come to Scandinavia or some parts of Europe, people are sitting with their arms crossed … Here, the audience understands we are part of the show.”

Marriska Fernandes is a Toronto-based entertainment reporter and film critic. She is a freelance contributor for the Star’s Culture section. Follow her on Twitter: @marrs_fers


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