Writing an uninhibited satire exploring masculinity

Research was paramount for Swedish writer-director Ruben Östlund when crafting the screenplay for Triangle Of Sadness, a term used in the beauty industry. “In Swedish, it’s called ‘trouble wrinkle’ and it suggests you’ve had a lot of struggles in your life. I thought it said something about our era’s obsession with looks and that inner well-being is, in some respects, secondary.”

“I did some research into the fashion world in 2018, when I collaborated with my friend Per Andersson and developed a small line of clothing for his Swedish menswear label Velour. I also gained a detailed insider’s take on the industry through my partner, Sina, who is a fashion photographer,” says Ruben Östlund. “When we met, she told me a lot about the marketing strategies for different fashion brands and also about working conditions for models. For example, a male model generally earns only a third of what a female model does.”

An uninhibited satire where roles and class are inverted and the tawdry economic value of beauty is unveiled.

Fredrik Wenzel,  ©Platform Produktion

“I thought it would be interesting to look at these differences through the main characters, a male and a female model called Carl and Yaya. When I started to do research for the film, numerous male models told me that they often have to manoeuvre past powerful homosexual men in the industry who want to sleep with them, sometimes with the promise of a more successful career. In some respects, being a male model mirrors what women have to deal with in a patriarchal society.”

In Triangle Of Sadness models Carl (Harris Dickinson) and Yaya (Charlbi Dean) are navigating the world of fashion while exploring the boundaries of their relationship. The couple is invited for a luxury cruise with a rogues’ gallery of super-rich passengers, a Russian oligarch, British arms dealers and an idiosyncratic, alcoholic, Marx-quoting captain. At first, all appears Instagrammable. But a storm is brewing, and heavy seasickness hits the passengers during the seven-course captain’s dinner. The cruise ends catastrophically. Carl and Yaya find themselves marooned on a desert island with a group of billionaires and one of the ship’s cleaners. Hierarchy is suddenly flipped upside down, as the housekeeper is the only one who knows how to fish.

Growing up on an island on the West Coast of Sweden, Östlund studied at the University of Gothenburg where he met Erik Hemmendorff with whom he later founded Plattform Produktion.

An avid skier, Östlund directed three ski films, alluding to his taste for long sequence shots, a taste he structured and developed throughout his film studies and which to this day remains an important trademark of his work.

Östlund’s feature debut The Guitar Mongoloid (2005) won the FIPRESCI Award at Moscow Film Festival. All of Östlund’s subsequent feature films premiered at Cannes, starting with his second feature Involuntary (2008), which premiered in Un Certain Regard. Östlund won the Golden Bear in Berlin for his short film Incident By A Bank (2010). This short film provided the opportunity for him to experiment with techniques and style. This experimentation would become apparent in his third feature Play (2011), which premiered at Cannes in the Directors’ Fortnight. It went on to win the Nordic Film Prize (the most important Scandinavian prize). His fourth feature Force Majeure (2014) premiered in Un Certain Regard and won the Jury Prize. It was also nominated for a Golden Globe and shortlisted for an Oscar.
Östlund returned to Cannes with his fifth feature The Square (2017), which was selected in the Official Competition and won the Palme d’Or. It was nominated for a Golden Globe and an Oscar. Triangle Of Sadness is his sixth feature and premiered in competition at Cannes 2022, winning the Palme d’Or.

Director Ruben Östlund with Henrik Dorsin, Vicki Berlin and Woody Harrelson during the filming of Triangle of Sadness. Fredrik Wenzel,  ©Platform Produktion

A Conversation With writer-director Ruben Östlund

Do you see Force Majeure, The Square and Triangle of Sadness as a loosely-connected trilogy
exploring masculinity in modern times.

Yes, I started to think about this when I was writing Triangle Of Sadness. All the men in these films are
trying to deal with who they are supposed to be and what is expected of them. They are then put in a trap in order to see how they behave. For me, these three films have really been a way of setting up a dilemma for myself, of cornering myself. What would I do if I was dealing with this? As soon as the answer appears to be easy, then it’s not so interesting. But if it is hard, then I am interested.

So you are interested in how beauty has economical value, whether it’s in the fashion world or in the ‘normal’ world?

Yes! That was the initial idea. Our looks are one of the fundamental things we have to deal with as human beings. The way we look affects every social encounter. The fact that looks play such a key role in society is something of a universal inequality, but on the other hand, you can be born beautiful wherever you come from and that beauty can be used to climb the socioeconomic ladder in a class-based society.

A running joke for female models is that when their modelling career is over, they always can marry rich men and become trophy wives – something that is not really possible for male models.

“It’s about the power you hold in a world where beauty is valuable. Initially, Carl was a model who was losing his hair, but Ruben leant away from that idea when we started filming. The dynamic between Carl and Yaya is still stilted because she’s a beautiful, slightly older model who is on the rise while he’s on the way down. When they end up stranded on the island, he is able to use his beauty as economy,” says actor Harris Dickinson

Ergo once again using the sociological gaze as a way into an idea

As with all my films, my starting point is to look at human behaviour. Many scenes in Triangle Of Sadness have a connection to a sociological study or an anecdote that I think highlights something from a behaviouristic point of view.

There is one study in particular that I thought was extremely interesting: scientists observing zebras in the
African savanna were trying to figure out why their fur is black and white when they live in the savanna. Wouldn’t it be better if their fur was as yellow as the sandy savanna? Studying individual zebras proved almost impossible as they disappeared into the herd, so a red dot was sprayed onto an individual zebra, making it easier to follow. However, the red dot made it stand out and it was almost immediately taken by lions. The scientists quickly realised that the black and white pattern is not about hiding in the environment, but rather about hiding in the herd.

The scientists drew parallels to us humans and pointed out something fascinating about the fashion industry. We use our clothes to try and hide in the social group to which we are connected. Our clothes are our camouflage. Just think about the concerns we have when we are going to a fancy evening party; we really don’t want to be over- or underdressed. If we get it wrong we feel exposed. From an economical perspective, it really makes sense that fashion brands create new collections all the time. Then we have to change our clothes more often and consume more.

It’s no accident that I called the fashion line I created for Velour ‘Discreet Bourgeoisie’. One of the pieces was the “Lumière Tuxedo”, which I named in homage to the cinema in Cannes where I was awarded the Palme d’Or for The Square in 2017. You can wear the tuxedo as a kind of camouflage amongst the educated middle class. In the Lumière tuxedo, you can hide in the Cannes herd very efficiently!

You also address issues of gender roles and behavioural expectations, primarily with Carl and Yaya when they argue about who should pay for dinner at the start of the film.
The restaurant scene is inspired by my own experience with Sina. Near the start of our relationship, I wanted to impress her and invited her to Cannes. I paid the bill for dinner the first, second, and third night and then I thought, “Fuck, I have to take the bull by the horns and have a discussion about this. I like her too much to step into the role of man and woman, where the man always pays the bill.” What you see in the film is what happened between us: the argument took place in the Martinez lift; her stuffing the €50 bill in my shirt and me freaking out and yelling; me sitting in a room alone, thinking, “Now I’ve ruined this relationship” and then the sincere discussion we had when she finally returned. We were finally ready to expose ourselves, to make ourselves vulnerable and grow closer as a result.

What did you want to show by putting Carl and Yaya on a super yacht?
I knew that I wanted the last part of the film to take place on a deserted island so the yacht was a way of getting there and bringing some interesting characters along – the model couple, some billionaires and a cleaning lady. On the island, when it turns out that the cleaning lady knows how to fish and make a fire, the old hierarchy is turned upside down.
I understand your mother was a communist. What kind of values did she instil in you in your formative years?
She is still a communist. She was a primary school teacher and a painter, as such, was a very encouraging mother. Her method was basically to be supportive and say, “Wow, that’s great!” It didn’t matter what I drew, it was fantastic.

I think it helped me to trust myself when I make artistic decisions. I grew up on a small island called Styrsö on the west coast of Sweden, and not many on the island had the same left-wing politics as my parents. Mum had books by both Marx and Lenin and when friends came round, I’d turn the Lenin books around so that the spines were hidden. I understood that they were controversial in the eyes of others.

What are your feelings about the ultra-rich?
I am interested in how we react when we are spoilt. For example, when I fly business class, I behave differently than when I fly economy. I sit there and read more slowly and drink more slowly as I watch passengers heading for economy class. It is almost impossible to not be affected by privilege.

Are you saying it’s human nature for the super-rich to behave in a privileged, spoilt manner?
I believe that rich people are nice. Successful people are often very socially skilled otherwise they wouldn’t be so successful. There’s an ongoing myth that successful and rich people are horrible, but it’s reductive. I wanted the sweet old English couple to be the most sympathetic characters in the film. They are nice and respectful to everyone – they just happen to have made their money on landmines and hand grenades. It’s probably a more accurate description of what the world looks like.

Your films are very much rooted in European cinema, but Triangle of Sadness is your first English-language film. Did you find the process challenging?
Yes, because there are nuances that I don’t know about in the English language that I know in Swedish. Having said that, my scenarios and themes are simple, and they have a universality, so it is easy for the actors to relate to them. I always work in the same way: during casting and rehearsals, I improvise the scenes with the actors; and I later use some of that material in the script when it is better than the original dialogue. If I am working with English-speaking actors, they can fill in any gaps I may have and make the language richer, more nuanced and so on.

But I am ambivalent about making films in English since I’m critical of the dominance of Anglo-Saxon culture. It’s absurd what kind of influence it has over Sweden and Scandinavia.

This is a rhetorical question really, but can film – and, in fact, culture in general – change society?

Of course. You’d have to be a little stupid to think otherwise. My mentor, the Swedish film producer Kalle Boman, was asked by one of my fellow students at film school if films can change society. He answered: “All films change society”. And of course, that in itself can be problematic.

In Sweden, we have had a lot of young men killed in so-called gang shootings and in the cultural pages, there is an ongoing debate about the extent of the influence of gangster rap on our behaviour. To answer yes to that question is not the same as being pro-censorship. We believe in freedom of speech, but we should also be aware of the consequences that this cultural expression might create.

Director Ruben Östlund with Woody Harrelson during the filming of Triangle of Sadness. Fredrik Wenzel,  ©Platform Produktion

Directors often talk about having ‘good’ or ‘bad’ luck when shooting – do you feel that you were blessed with Triangle Of Sadness?

It was interesting. Just before we started to shoot in Greece, conflict was building between Turkey and Greece and we started to get nervous about that. Then, on the first day of the shoot, a storm was coming in and we were supposed to do a long tracking shot on a beach. At that point we decided, “Let’s go with the weather. If that’s the weather, then that’s how the scene is going to play out. Let’s use what we have.” And I found that a happy-go-lucky kind of attitude made us much more relaxed, and very often issues solved themselves. Apart from the storm, we were very fortunate with the weather.
We shot the exteriors on Christina O, the old Onassis yacht, which turned out to add quite a fun meta layer when we blew her up. That yacht is such a strong symbol of the elite of the 60s and 70s, and myriad famous, powerful men like Churchill have spent a lot of time on her. So we had nine days on the yacht, which was very expensive, and Covid was getting closer and closer and another lockdown was looming. In fact, we just managed to finish the shooting on the day before we went into another lockdown. Had the
lockdown come a few days earlier, I don’t know how we could have finished the film.