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A historical and materialist Triangle of Sadness

The Palme d’Or of 2022 was the magnifying glass that History needs, in order for someone to focus on a very small scale, on micro-societies, and to understand the laws of social development on a larger scale. Of course, being an artistic work, apart from commenting on and presenting these laws of social development, it also showcases the absurdity of the evolution of human exploitative societies, in a peculiar rewriting of the Communist Manifesto, with elements of The Origin of the Family, the State, and Private Property. Östlund is not a communist, as he clearly tells us through the words interpreted by “Captain” Woody Harrelson, yet he accepts the Marxist narration of history, and for something so grand, he leaves his own legacy in the history of cinema.

Five years after his first Palme d’Or, with the colder and more timid “The Square,” which constituted a rather Scandinavian critique of contemporary societies, Östlund left behind any fear to step into the spotlight and speak candidly. This boldness in art must be rewarded, as the global audience was undoubtedly rewarded by the evolution of the filmmaker’s audacity. Triangle of Sadness does not hide either the questions or the answers. It brings to the foreground the director’s proposal, thought, and complete story. If someone does not want to understand it or wants to look askance, that is their own affair, but the creator leaves nothing unanswered.

The narrative is “built” around three different parts, which, like curtains, open up new spaces where the audience can explore the nature of exploitative systems. Each space represents a higher level, deeper in terms of analysis and the clash of ideologies, and more relentless regarding the stakes, the future of humanity. However, the audience enters all this through a display window that probably hasn’t predisposed them to what awaits, which, combined with the artistic showcase of Östlund’s talent and the high-technical cinematographic narration, does not allow them to look back, trapping them in the subject and forcing them to follow the progressively more challenging questions. For many, of course, this journey is a pleasure, but the filmmaker leaves nothing to chance in the audience’s choice.

This journey is described in the title of the film. The “Triangle of Sadness” is a term known in the fashion industry to describe the wrinkles above the nose, which usually result from the torments and anxieties of life. The reflection of real conditions on the surface of human skin can be erased in 15 minutes with Botox. The same result can be achieved in cinema, art in general, and ideological confrontation. However, the filmmaker, playing with this irony, declares his intentions from the beginning.

In the first part, the story revolves around a young couple in our world, on our soil. A couple who has found a way to survive within the given system and deals with the balance of their relationships, trying to analyse them as a result of power relations, between genders, and between different economic statuses. There, Östlund essentially picks up where he left off in “The Square”, critiquing relationships within a given system. No one can imagine where this innocent passage through arguments, which are rehashed daily and permeate almost all productive and social activities, at least in the so-called “Western developed world,” will lead. This is only the prologue, the exploration of meanings that lie within the edifice of the edifice, which have the ability to conceal the essence, the basis of their development, with which few engage in order to observe the phenomena of outcomes and not just as patterns.

That’s when the time comes to open the “first curtain”, with the beginning of the second part, which is no longer set on our familiar soil, but in a world that, although we know exists, most of us have never encountered – and probably never will. Aboard a luxurious yacht, cruising for a few ultra-rich passengers, the enormous contrast created by class exploitation is uncovered. Not in some other era or world, but in our own time, in our world. The irrational demands, the absurd egotistical sensitivity, and the unreasonable greed of the rich always victimise the poor workers. Everything is made for them, and there is no limit to what they can request. Only one person refuses to indulge them.

The difference between the ship and the soil is that on the ship, the absolute ruler is the Captain. He chooses to spoil their party, serving them dinner on the day of the barometric low, the storm, and the downpour, in order to see them humiliated from the position of power he holds, as his experience allows him to stand upright even when the deck tilts like a steep cliff. At this point, another level of contrast enters the narrative, between the ideas of the world we live in, the exploitative system we know, and the ideas of those who saw and see the need to replace it. An American Marxist, by no means among the victims of exploitation, with elements of self-portraiture for Östlund, responds to a Russian capitalist who is aware of the ridiculousness of a system but cynically exploits it for his own benefit.

The elements of surrealism are not far from the ideological dispute that has persisted within humanity for the last two centuries, yet they let the ship be destroyed, battered by the waves, until it is finally sunk by pirates, simply because none of those with power at the time saw any serious reason to save it. The contrast comes through the response of the helpless rich who cannot manage the collapse and the capable working class that continues to work even at the hour of the shipwreck, as it always does to provide pleasure to its exploiters.

And things move on to the third part, on the island, a surreal world where all the absurdity of our modern history can unfold without cover. The micro-society that is created corresponds to the small scale at which we view our history, as we perceive the conditions of any given moment to be permanent. The director, playing a bit with roles, reshuffles the social deck and goes through the history of humanity from the primitive communal system to exploitative societies in just a few cinematic minutes, approximately 24 hours in narrative time. The strongest, in this case, a low-ranking worker from the ship, becomes the ruler, as the rest feel compelled to follow her for their survival. The relationships that develop between them are those that develop in advanced capitalist societies among their members, depending on their roles. Even the relationships between genders and incomes from the first part are reconstructed, based on the power relations prevailing in this micro-society.

Suddenly, Marx’s ideas, which were countered by the Russian capitalist, seem like the most logical words in the world, not only for him who finds himself in a position of being exploited but also for the audience, who perceives the absurdity of the exploitative relationship by being outside of it, knowing a world larger than it. However, the audience living in capitalism, in most cases, resembles the members of this small society, who in a very short time have adapted very easily to all the new relationships, as this seems to be the one-way path for their survival. Is there a one-way path for the audience’s survival as well?

Even this question, Östlund does not leave unanswered. He does not leave the tragic irony of the heroes to the knowledge of the external observer. He places it within his film. The way out, which is known to everyone, although forgotten by the isolated castaways, ceases to be absent from the plot. However, its discovery brings about the great dilemma of power: to show the way out, losing its privileges, or to work to close off this path, even if it means ultimate total destruction? To seek alternative routes to lead the others there, or to search for the truth in order to know how to hide it? For power, there is no such dilemma, neither in the film nor in reality. The only question is for the audience, the one posed by the filmmaker in the final scene, leaving us to think, guess, and perhaps choose the direction in which one of his heroes runs. This direction also shows the necessity of an ideological course for each person, depending on their position, but this is the answer that the audience itself, as a member of the exploitative society in the small historical island we happen to live in, must provide.

In any case, salvation has never come from the outside; in Östlund’s narrative, there is neither a “deus ex machina” nor a “saviour”. The non-resolution of the drama is in line with its era. In another society, perhaps the director would have wanted or been able to conceive it. However, he interpreted the world and left the duty of changing it to the rest of us.

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