Ruben Östlund recently screened his new film Triangle of Sadness to a select audience in Paris. Among the attendees was “one of the richest persons in France”, who stood up during a Q&A and started screaming that the film was “too simple”. As he recounts the story to me, Östlund looks disgusted. “No, it’s not very complicated,” says the Swedish director, folding his arms defiantly. “It’s not OK to exploit another human being and pay them a s*** salary. And it’s not OK to make a huge profit, using other people. It is that simple.”
The 48-year-old isn’t just a provocateur; he’s made a career from skewering social and cultural mores. Force Majeure, his international breakthrough in 2014, was an acute study of human behaviour, and followed the eruption in a family after its patriarch momentarily abandons his wife and children amid an avalanche. The Square, in 2017, was a scathing attack on the art world, and won Östlund the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. He won his second this summer for Triangle of Sadness, another biting satire designed to get audiences talking.
In Cannes, that was a result of the film’s elaborate vomit scene, which comes when the passengers on a luxury cruise fall ill during a storm, and they collectively chunder their haute cuisine. It’s an insane 15-minute sequence, outgrossing even Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life when Terry Jones’s Mr Creosote explodes with sick after gorging himself. “That’s really only from one [orifice],” Östlund chuckles. “I wanted to do the first film scene in the world with someone actually s***ing and throwing up at the same time.”
Today, Östlund is sitting in the office of his UK distributor, showing me a marketing innovation – a digital advertisement that toggles between across the board five-star reviews for Triangle of Sadness from his neighbouring country Denmark and a clutch of three-star reviews from his homeland. “In Sweden, they will lift you up to a certain point but then it’s ‘Now we have to cut you down.’” He accepts Triangle of Sadness is a “divider”, but even so... “In Sweden, it was like, ‘Yeah, it’s three stars!’ Come on!”
As delighted as he is by the largely positive reception to the film, the Triangle… experience will forever be tinged with sadness. In August, the film’s female lead Charlbi Dean died suddenly, aged just 32. It was later revealed she had a lung infection, possibly complicated by the removal of her spleen when she was younger. “It’s always tragic when someone dies young,” says Östlund. “Now when you’re travelling around [with the film]… there will always be one spot that’s missing. Someone is not there that should be next to us. That makes it very, very sad.”
Initially, it seems like Triangle… is picking up where The Square left off. While that film had artists in its sights, this begins by lacerating the fashion industry, with male model Carl (Harris Dickinson) seen at a humiliating cattle-call, where he and his fellow himbos are made to grin like idiots. Östlund’s wife, who works as a fashion photographer, told him stories from the trenches, which inspired him to start writing. He felt some of her tales – from male models being demeaned to earning less than their female counterparts – was a good “mirror” for the way women are treated in the world.
Carl is later taken by his higher-earning influencer girlfriend Yaya (Dean) on a cruise for the super-wealthy, populated by oligarchs, tech titans and arms dealers, and captained by Woody Harrelson’s Marxist-spouting drunk. With Östlund investigating what he calls “very strong hierarchies” in these worlds, he flips it when a violent storm wrecks the ship, and passengers – including Carl and Yaya – are washed up on a desert island. Abigail (Dolly de Leon), the ship’s toilet cleaner, is the only one who possesses the necessary survival skills.
Anyone expecting the savagery of Lord of the Flies might be shocked, though, with Abigail instead lauding her newfound power over those who barely even knew she existed. “There is a conventional way of looking at class: the poor people are nice and rich people are mean,” says Östlund, who was aware how subverting this cliché might be perceived. “If I say ‘No, they are human beings’, and they are going to maybe be mean or good… I don’t know, then I can be criticised for being cold-hearted.”
Östlund, unsurprisingly, is not one for pandering to political correctness (witness the title of his 2004 debut: The Guitar Mongoloid). He grew up near Gothenburg in a family where lively political debate was commonplace. His mother is a self-described Communist, while his brother was a right-wing conservative. “When we’re having family dinners, it [is] constant ideological battles.”
He’s not against the rich or capitalism itself but questions the legitimacy of a system where the economy is valued higher than the quality of people’s lives. “The one thing that I’ve found in every country that I’m travelling [to] is that young people can’t get a place to live,” he says. “And it’s absurd. Are we living to improve the economy or is the economy there to improve our lives? It’s almost like we have forgotten about the qualities of capitalism.”
In person, the filmmaker is honest and open, admitting the pressure he felt to follow The Square and the relief when Triangle… was accepted into Cannes. Still, winning a second Palme was wild, putting Östlund in an extremely rarefied group of directors who have won Cannes’ top prize twice, including Ken Loach, Francis Ford Coppola, and the Dardenne Brothers. He could yet win an unprecedented third. “It starts [as] a little dream,” he says. “I have a couple of films left to do… I’m relatively young as a filmmaker.”
He’s already hatched a plan for his next film, The Entertainment System Is Down. It’s all set on a long-haul flight – and such a self-explanatory idea, another way to slide humans under the microscope, sounds delicious. Experience has taught him to fear the worse, though: “You go through the same kind of process every time, feeling, ‘This film is awful!’ And I feel that every time that I’m working. There’s always one part of the process where you feel “S***, this didn’t work out.’”
Still, he felt the second Palme d’Or gave him legitimacy. “A French producer told me, ‘Well, when you win the second time, then you’re proving that the first decision that they made to give you the Palme was the correct decision – [as] they could have been wrong. Now, they have proven they were not wrong.’ So for me, right now, I feel kind of free because there’s some proof that I’m a good director.”
‘Triangle of Sadness’ is in cinemas now
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