"Triangle of Sadness," as defined by filmmaker Ruben Östlund, is a term appropriated from the beauty industry, referring to the space between one's eyebrows where the struggles of life manifest as wrinkles. That is, if you don't have the money, power and privilege to smooth them out with a quick procedure.
When the Swedish filmmaker married his partner Sina, a fashion photographer, he was given an insider's perspective into a world he'd known nothing about. He became fascinated by the power dynamics of the fashion world and the prevailing notion of beauty as currency, and so conceived of Triangle of Sadness, a take-no-prisoners social satire told in three parts.
The first piece of the triptych introduces influencer couple Carl and Yaya (Harris Dickinson and Charlbi Dean), whose gender dynamics are defined by the hierarchy between male and female models. Their situation is only exasperated when they are invited aboard a luxury cruise for the uber-rich. Luckily or unluckily for them, the trip is cut short when the superyacht sinks.
"Since I did Force Majeure, I decided that I wanted to make films that take place in an environment that we like to click on. If I'm on an airplane and I'm going to look at the film, I want to spend time on a ski resort. Then I want to discuss something that I think is important, " Östlund says. "This time, I was thinking one plus one plus one — fashion world, luxury world, deserted island — I want to spend time in all three of these. Okay, let's talk about class society in these three environments."
Marooned on an island, the hierarchy distinguishing passengers from crew is undone, with the ship's lowly toilet manager, Abigail (Filipina theater actress Dolly De Leon) rising to the top. When Triangle of Sadness premiered during this year's Cannes Film Festival, it won the Palme d'Or, Östlund's second consecutive film to do so.
"I wanted the film to be wild and entertaining, and I wanted to surprise the audience with turning points," he explains. Which is to say nothing of the film's centerpiece sequence: A vomitous set piece that punishes the billionaires for their indulgences when the ship hits rough waters and they erupt in a symphony of bodily fluids. In conversation with A.frame, Östlund reveals how he pulled it off.
A.frame: With Triangle of Sadness, what were you most excited to go out and actually shoot? Conversely, what did you know would challenge you most as a filmmaker?
I think that what I really was looking forward to was when the arms dealers are getting blown up by their own hand grenade. I always thought that was a great way of ending the yacht. And there are small details like that in all of the different parts, where I was really excited to go and shoot it. I knew it was going to be very hard to shoot the vomiting scene, because it was a scene that needed to be constructed in the editing — to increase the storm, to increase the sea sickness, and increase the chaos.
It was a kind of scene that I have never done before, really. It was a big challenge of shooting these short segments, but still trying to have an overview of how to build this for a long time, because I knew I wanted the scene to be long. I wanted to push it further than the audience could expect. I wanted the audience to understand, "Okay, he's going to push it," but I wanted to push it three times longer, or 10 times longer, so they would be like, "Oh my god!" That was a scene that we put a lot of effort in. We had a lot of shooting days shooting it, and I probably edited that scene for half a year, or something. It took a long time.
Talk to me about how you came up with the stroke of genius to do this opera of vomit in the first place.
It was actually how I pitched the film for Woody Harrelson. I said, "Okay, you are going to play a Marxist captain and you are going to read from The Communist Manifesto to s—tting and throwing up guests on a luxury yacht." And he was like, "Wow. I'm in. This is great."
How did you go about shooting that sequence? Did you have sets built on a gimbal? Or was that in-camera tricks?
It was a gimbal. I had a fantastic set designer, Josefin Åsberg, and the details that those rooms were built with was amazing. You could go this close and you would see every detail. It felt like you are on a yacht. We built the dining room, we built one corridor, we built the command bridge, on gimbals that we could rock like [a seesaw]. When we started shooting, we quite quickly realized that actually, the crew is getting sea sick being on the gimbal. Some of the crew were eating sea sick pills in order to be able to stand on that gimbal for a whole day and work.
What was it like directing your actors as they are actually teetering about these sets?
It was horrible, because I'm a control freak. I want to really control everything. I was not 100 percent in control either, so it was a tough challenge.
No one goes through it quite like Sunnyi Melles. [The Swiss actress has become the spewing face of the film, as seen on the movie's poster.] How did she feel when she finally got to wrap that sequence?
I think she could have gone much, much further, because she is a very special actor. I have never worked with someone that is so physical, and actually, she could provoke vomiting by herself. She had done a stage play where she was vomiting, and she was very skillful in first imitating the body movement that happens, but she also actually could provoke vomiting. I have never met any actor that is more tough when it comes to a physical challenge. When she was sliding around on the ground of the yacht, that was one of the scenes when the gimbal was moving, and she was willing to go further, and further, and further. I thought I wanted to push it, but if there was someone who wanted to push it, it's Sunnyi Melles.
You said you spent half a year editing that sequence, how close is it to what you initially envisioned? Was there ever a version that you said, "Even for me, this might be a bit much"?
The thing is, when you're sitting and editing and you know the material, you don't react on the material anymore. That is, of course, a problem when you're editing something like that, because you have not really tried it out on the audience before you start with test screenings. No. I think it's only about the length, actually. It can't be too long, because then the film is not going to be dynamic and the last part of the film will suffer. So, the only reason that I cut down parts of it was because I wanted it to be dynamic, and to work with the rest of the film. I don't know if I pushed it too far, because it seems that this is the scene that people just want to talk about! [Laughs] They don't want to talk about the political message. They only want to talk about the vomiting.
You tested the film in screenings before you premiered at Cannes, yes?
Yes. We did the first test screening in In Stockholm, and the film probably was three hours and 25 minutes. It was almost one hour longer. There were actually no people leaving the screening, which I felt, "Great. They will probably not run out of the cinema when they see it." I always have been a little bit more — how do you say — intellectual with the jokes, and this is the first time where I go, "Let's just push the joke." It's a slapstick comedy thing. It was a relief for me to dare to go in that direction. I was very happy when the audience was responding so good at it. I had one person throwing up during the screening, but otherwise, it had been very good reactions.
Someone actually threw up in the theater?!
What is that experience like for you, sitting in the theater during these test screenings with some of the first audiences that will see the movie?
I think that's the most important thing when you make film for the cinema, because there's a huge difference between sitting alone in front of a screen or if you're 50 people or more in the room. I have a lot of friends that work in theater, and when you do theater, you're constantly working together with the audience. You're playing through the play with the audience at a very early stage, in order to get to know the dynamics of an audience. It's not so much about asking them afterwards, "Did you understand this or that?" It's rather, like, to be there, and feel the energy. Because you will get to know immediately when something is too long or when something is too short or when something is not working. You will feel it immediately
It was interesting to be doing test screenings in Berlin, where it was a very intellectual audience, and they were very self-aware. They didn't make a sound during the whole screening. It was horrible! Then I did a test spinning here in Campos, where I live in Spain, and there are no cineastes at all. They were screaming straight out, "Oh, the film is too long!" It was fantastic, because I can use that direction. But the intellectuals are not reacting! They're so aware of how they react, and it's hard to use the test screenings.
If you learn something on every movie, what did you learn making Triangle of Sadness?
At the point when I was cutting the film, I felt, "This will never work out." How could I be so stupid? How could I believe that I can do a film that starts in the fashion world, goes to a luxury yacht, and then halfway through the film, it restarts? That's basically how it felt when I was editing it the first time. But when you find the right dynamics, when you find the right in and out point on things, when I realized the sooner we introduce Abigail on the island, the quicker the film gets spin again and you're attached again. I got to learn, once again, filmmaking is about making a dynamic experience for the audience, because then it will work. And when you take a challenge that you don't know how you should pull off, it's enjoyable to solve it.