Selling Yourself for Pretzel Sticks: Masculine Crisis in the Dystopian Triangle of Sadness

By Jess Flarity

Swedish screenwriter and director Ruben Östlund’s Triangle of Sadness (henceforth, Triangle) was a controversial Palme d’Or winner at 2022’s Cannes film festival, with New York Times reviewer A.O. Scott writing, “The elaborately constructed, meandering plot…purport[s] to expose the hypocrisies and contradictions of contemporary life, but [it is an edifice] of complacency, [a] clever advertisement for the status quo.” Further complicating the North American release of the film in October was the unexpected death of the lead actor Charlbi Dean in August. Although this had no effect on the early circulation of the film and the Cannes award, her passing may influence future awards due to posthumous guilt, as some have argued concerning Heath Ledger or Chadwick Boseman[1] (Majumdar). In any case, this essay will move ahead with its discussion of gender and power in the film while acknowledging that Dean’s performance was truly phenomenal.

Many prominent critics, such as Scott, have lukewarm appraisals of the film’s uneven pacing and its unsubtle lampooning of the ultra-rich, which veers from mildly amusing to blatantly unnecessary. The clearest example of this is near the end of Part II, when a long sequence of puking and diarrhea montages finishes in a violent climax as a geriatric, pleasant-seeming, British couple are blown up by a hand grenade that their own company has manufactured. The woman even asks before it explodes, “Oh, is that one of ours?” But even as these reviewers accuse the film of having too much flash or style, they ignore the film’s deeper exploration of gender roles and power within patriarchal capitalism in order to offer up their own punchy one-liners: “Östlund’s gifts are dazzling. If only he knew when to stop giving” (Time), or “Vomit and Shit and Class Warfare, Oh My” (Rolling Stone) and in the one review that is the most self-aware of this issue, “I’ve seen Triangle of Sadness described as angry, and yet its foremost sentiment strikes me as one of smug nihilism in which the dynamics of the haves and have-nots can’t be escaped, only replicated with different parties on top. Capitalism, right? What a drag, but then what else can you do?” (Vulture). While a ridiculously blunt form of Marxist critique dominates this three-part epic, described by some as a dystopian “Gilligan’s Island gone wrong,” my analysis will focus where others have yet to tread: on the film’s insights into masculine legitimacy and crisis in relation to feminine power. 

Part I: Gender, Power, and Capitalism, or Why Talking About Money is Unsexy

Exploring the subjugated role of male models as a phenomena that “mirrors what women have to deal with in a patriarchal society” was Östlund’s original intention with Triangle (Raphael). This reveals much about the entire structure of the film, which begins and ends with a focus on a sympathetic male model protagonist, Carl (Harris Dickinson). The opening sequence follows Carl and a group of other shirtless young men being filmed as they wait for an audition; they are asked to switch simultaneously between an expensive, “grumpy” brand and a cheaper, “happy” brand, resulting in a tonal effect that is simultaneously amusing and a little bit disturbing—the juxtaposition of frowns and smiles shot in a rapid pace foreshadows the malleability of Carl’s position in society, and explains why he will eventually abandon his girlfriend Yaya (Charlbi Dean) in Part III, when their relationship based on mutual need becomes too one-sided. The other sequences in this introduction continue to emphasize how modeling is a dehumanizing career, though Östlund feels rather late to the party here, especially when you consider that Zoolander is over twenty years old, and the “Everyone is Equal Now” catwalk scene feels like a retread of Sorry to Bother You’s contemporary art satire, but without the water balloons filled with sheep’s blood [2].

The remaining bulk of Part I is the “bill scene” and its aftermath, which Östlund insists really happened to him and his wife when they were first dating. Here, we see Carl in a feminized position as he is cornered in a scenario that he can’t win. In this scene, he attempts to nudge Yaya to pick up their bill at a high-end restaurant, according to an agreement she previously made with him. The scene’s pacing and the couple’s conversation is drawn out, awkward, and expertly timed, continually emphasizing how all of Carl’s options are bad ones: he can pay the bill, but this undermines her earlier promise and weakens his trust in her, or he can force her to pay the bill, but this makes him seem cruel. Like many women trapped in the wheel of capitalism, he is stuck in a double-bind, and in the end, he attempts a middle path as a form of strained negotiation. In the end, even though Yaya makes more money than he does, he is still forced to pay. Here, Östlund is again explicit in his goal with this scene and movie overall, as he states in a Vanity Fair interview, “I’m focusing on being a man in contemporary times. When the man and the expectations of the man [end up] in a dilemma where we want to behave in a different way”.

Carl’s position is a modern example of a traditional gender role in crisis: to be a man today is to be a living paradox. While it is more “manly” for Carl to pick up the dinner check while on a date, even with his long-term girlfriend, this can also be financially devastating and threaten the future stability of the relationship. When Carl and Yaya end up fighting all the way to her hotel room, he has no other option but to slam the $50 Euro note she gives him into the crack of the elevator door, making the physical embodiment of capital itself disappear. When they eventually reconcile, Yaya tells him that “talking about money is unsexy,” and she reveals that their relationship is based on looking good together rather than on long-term stability, further deepening Carl’s “trouble wrinkle” and foreshadowing an undercurrent of brooding jealousy that will continue for the rest of the film. The elevator serves as a metaphor for vertical mobility, class or otherwise, and the $50 Euro note concretizes capitalism, later transmogrified in Part III into literal bread—as pretzel sticks.

Part II: Ambiguity and Layers of Power on the Ship of Fools

The second, much longer sequence of Triangle takes place entirely on a $25 million dollar luxury cruise yacht, which Carl and Yaya can only attend because they received free tickets as internet influencers. The couple feels out of place amongst the Russian oligarchs and corporate billionaires, though as other reviewers have commented, this is done on purpose by Östlund to remind the audience that they are not as deeply embedded in the mechanisms of the ultra-wealthy, and merely on a kind of “three-hour tour.” While the number of selfies Yaya requires reaches hyperbolically into Coachella territory, early on, Carl is shown reading a freshly minted copy of Joyce’s Ulysses, which Chloe Lizotte sees as commentary on structure. She finds Östlund’s choice ironic, writing, “Triangle’s structure makes a joke of order and disorder, offering an implicit critique of familiar forms. Although its plot is clearly segmented into three sections, they aren’t evenly balanced or beholden to tight plotting. This dissonance between rigid structure and internal chaos suggests that a drive for stability, a reliance on traditional narratives, will be our undoing…”

Carl and Yaya fade into the background during this segment of the film, and the drunken Captain (Woody Harrelson) appears (ironically, since he identifies as a Marxist) to serve as a metaphor for capitalism itself. While he is technically in control of the ship, much like how capitalism is the driving economical force of our global society, his alcoholism also prevents him from being able to actually do anything useful. This is a reflection on how capitalism is largely an unconscious drive to forever consume, which Östlund further reinforces in his audience as the captain and the Russian “shit oligarch” (Zlatko Burić) get perpetually drunker and their discussion devolves into Google quotes on philosophy. This communicates that it doesn’t matter if you are a billion-dollar Russian capitalist or a high-ranking American socialist: both men are incredibly powerful yet equally worthless. While the film’s lack of subtly is again on display, Carl and Yaya, like the rest of the guests and crew, are stuck waiting in life preservers, much like the citizens living within a capitalist dystopia who are forced to wait as corporate CEOs destroy worker’s rights and the environment merely to line their already-bursting pockets. However, at other moments the film provides a subtler critique of masculinity, such as in the scene that involves Carl and the firing of the deckhand.

As Carl and Yaya lounge on the deck, it is clear that the earlier tension of the restaurant scene still lingers. A very hairy, shirtless and rugged deckhand rubs himself down with sun-tan lotion not far from where they sit, and Yaya’s very brief flirtation with the man prompts Carl to report him to a supervisor. Even though Carl is not a high-rolling passenger, the supervisor takes no chances and immediately has the deckhand fired. A look of horror appears on Carl’s face as he watches the man, who is beloved by his crewmates, being escorted off the boat. This sequence serves two purposes: it demonstrates how Carl’s softer masculinity is subordinate to the tougher deckhand, who Östlund casts as the hairiest man possible in contrast to his own boyish hairlessness, and it registers Carl’s shock at how his relatively mild complaint has rapidly escalated, getting the man fired. As in an earlier scene when he lost his seat at Yaya’s catwalk to the ship’s elite passengers, here he encounters indomitable social power, and, despite his ambivalence, he feels he must wield it or be crushed by it.

Part III: Pretzel Sticks are Money, or Yet Another Darwinist Interpretation of Class War

After more rollicking scenes involving a drunken duel of Marxist and capitalist quotations and body fluid squirting antics, several of the guests and crew end up stranded on a deserted island. Carl and Yaya have lived, but only one person in the group has any kind of survival skills: an older, Filipina woman named Abigail (Dolly De Leon). Critics have mixed opinions of this final segment, some of them finding the Robinson Crusoe-inspired linearity refreshing after the tumultuous boat ride, while others find it plodding and uninspired. Östlund is once again unsubtle here in his satire of capitalism, as Abigail quickly becomes the most powerful member of their group and makes Carl into a kind of personal sex slave in exchange for packages of pretzel sticks. While Yaya is distressed at her boyfriend’s cheating, she also receives a portion of his pretzel sticks and she later congratulates Abigail for creating “a fucking matriarchy.” Unfortunately, this is also where Östlund’s powers of imagination are at their weakest: he envisions this microcosm of society recreating capitalism all over again, as Carl finds himself trapped in the same situation as the start of the film, compelled to use his good looks to scrape by, remaining in a perpetual, dystopian state of emasculation. 

Östlund had many different options at this late point in the film, but why he chose to go with this “nihilistic” ending, as Alison Willmore comments, perhaps does lead to a “hazardous level of smug.” He had a rare opportunity here to reimagine a society without capitalism: why doesn’t Abigail teach the others how to fish or make a fire? Why are these pampered elites, many of whom became rich because they know the value of hard work, content to sit in their ruined tuxedos on the beach? Why does everyone go mad for pretzel sticks when there are likely coconuts, edible roots, or some other kind of carbohydrates in the surrounding jungle? The film circles back on itself in a way that many find dissatisfying. However, the final scenes do offer a note of clarity.

In the last sequence of shots, Yaya and Abigail are climbing the island’s mountain together, and they discover that it isn’t uninhabited at all—they are simply trapped on the other side of a high-end resort. A cliffside elevator opens and spunky disco-techno music pumps out, beckoning the castaways to return to their bourgeois lifestyles; Yaya even promises to make Abigail her “assistant.” Abigail is shown hefting a large rock into the air in the second-to-last scene, indicating that she is willing to kill another woman to return to her position of limited authority, perhaps driven by her love/lust for Carl. But this feels unrealistic, another unnecessary layering of ambiguity by Östlund, who can’t help but reach for the conceptually haziest thing and crank the dial on the bluntness. The very last scene, however, is better suited to the film’s overall theme of male crisis: it is a close-up of Carl running purposelessly through the jungle. This encapsulates his character and the role of a man in contemporary capitalism, especially one who is stuck in a form of secondary masculinity—he continually struggles, but he doesn’t know to what end. Any hope for real accomplishment is out of his reach. 

Conclusion

In an apt coda to the film’s impotent satire, Triangle of Sadness is currently the object of a bidding war by internet streaming services (as of November 2022). Perhaps it is the nature of a large-budget movie such as this one to skew towards spectacle over “real critique,” as the vehicle of satire itself is used for capitalist ends; the movie is watched by countless people who live inside capitalist structures and love to see its idiosyncrasies lampooned, but not actually changed, because that would mean more expensive products at the supermarket and fewer options for fast-food takeout. But as an explanation for male crisis in relation to feminine power through the lens of Carl, I would argue that the film is much more successful. Not that it will change anything about the modeling industry or our society’s toxic fetishization and adoration of commodities surrounding the culture of the ultra-wealthy…personally, the best I can hope for is that Östlund will read this essay and invite me to take a cruise on his yacht.

Jess Flarity is a PhD candidate specializing in 20th century literature and masculinity theory at the University of New Hampshire. 

Works Cited

Lizotte, Chloe. “Pyramid Scheme.” Film Comment. Oct 10, 2022: https://www.filmcomment.com/blog/pyramid-scheme/

Majumdar, Diya. “Mean this with no disrespect, he only won because he passed away: Marvel 

Fans Blast Emmys for Fake Pandering After Chadwick Boseman Wins Posthumous Award for Marvel’s ‘What If…?’”. Fandomwire.com. September 2022. https://fandomwire.com/mean-this-with-no-disrespect-he-only-won-because-he-passed-away-marvel-fans-blast-emmys-for-fake-pandering-after-chadwick-boseman-wins-posthumous-award-for-marvels-what-if/

Raphael, Amy. “Conversations with the director and actors.” Festival de Cannes Coproduction Office. April 2022. https://cdn-media.festival-cannes.com/film_film/0002/76/0cffa35e0f3bd1bbf516fa1e52d1d4468176a2da.pdf


[1] Intersectionality is also significant here, as Ledger’s awards are related to both his whiteness and death via drug overdose being interpreted as a form of “artistic genius” while Boseman’s awards after his long battle with colon cancer are interpreted as “pandering” due to racist sentiments within fandom.

[2] Östlund already explored the art world in detail in 2017’s The Square, also a Palme d’Or winner.

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