Magazine created by students of the Department of English and American Studies at Masaryk University.

A postmodern critique of relationships and gender roles in Ruben Östlund’s Triangle of Sadness

in Current Issue/Reviews

by Karin Nestešová 

Even if you are not a regular cinemagoer, chances are you have heard of the 2022 movie Triangle of Sadness which has been a hit not only in the European cinemas but also at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival where it has won the Palme d’Or award. This most recent satirical black comedy film written and directed by the Swedish director Ruben Östlund, whose previous movies Force Majeure (2014) and The Square (2017) have also been critically acclaimed, deals with the themes of beauty standards, gender stereotypes, and predominantly social and class inequalities. Although to some, the satirical poke at the wealthy’s incompetence to survive without reliance on their wealth and the lower- and working-class service workers can seem too obvious, the reversal of hierarchy and social roles in the third act of the film shows how even in a situation, where survival is at the top of the priority list, rather than creating an egalitarian system, the community replicates the capitalistic patterns of the default society. However, perhaps the most prominent way the themes of class and social hierarchy are explored in the movie is through the relationship of the two main characters, Carl and Yaya, reflecting how modern relationships, gender, and capitalism are closely intertwined. This portrayal of post-modern relationships mirrors the capitalistic patterns of society and the inequalities that Östlund criticizes through the wealthy guests’ interaction with the middle- and lower-class crew. 

The movie is divided into three chapters situated in three different environments. The individual chapters could be referred to as “the restaurant”, “the cruise” and “the island” according to the setting, each of which deals with a certain social topic to which the director tries to draw the viewer’s attention especially through, at times, too extensive and uncomfortable scenes, characteristic of Östlund’s style. 

This triangular film layout is the first of many manifestations of the film’s title Triangle of Sadness; the first and the last parts of the movie both largely deal with the main characters’ relationship among other themes, while the second part feels almost off-topic dealing with their relationship only very superficially, creating a sense of triangularity. The title itself in its literal sense refers to the place between one’s eyebrows where wrinkles form from tension, stress, and other negative emotions. We learn this in one of the first scenes of the first part of the movie when one of the main characters, a male model Carl played by Harris Dickinson, participates in a modelling audition where one of the members of the committee discretely suggests Botox for his “triangle of sadness” (00:05:45). Carl’s sadness is a common theme throughout the whole movie, largely due to his dissatisfaction with his status both in his romantic relationship and in the society as a whole. 

Apart from the sadness, three prominent social issues are dealt with during the movie; gender, social (in)equality, and social status. All of the aforementioned themes are always somehow intertwined with capitalism in the conversation among the characters, thus we can say that it is not individuals that Östlund criticizes, but the system itself.  As Östlund states in an interview with Vox “I am more interested in when we are failing. I’m interested in sins, where we don’t live up to the idea of what it is to be a good human being” (Wilkinson). 

These human struggles to live up to society’s expectations are explored through the relationship of the two main characters – Yaya and Carl. The character of Yaya (Charlbi Dean) represents a new type of celebrity – a social media influencer. Yaya’s whole career revolves around taking pictures of herself and going on free trips in exchange for free publicity for the resort, hotel, or, as we can see in the movie, a cruise. Yaya’s boyfriend Carl is an unsuccessful male model whom we see struggling to secure a modelling job at the beginning of the movie. Their relationship is beneficiary for both of them; Carl gets to enjoy Yaya’s paid trips and Yaya uses him to create content for her followers. The industry in which they work subverts the typical gender hierarchy where women are paid less than men and it strengthens the idea that class and gender are closely intertwined. 

The topic of gender inequality and how it can manifest in modern relationships is most predominantly dealt with in the first part of the movie, starting with a dinner scene at an expensive restaurant. During the restaurant scene, Yaya automatically thanks Carl for paying even before he does so, triggering Carl into making a scene about how he always pays for dinner even though Yaya makes more money than him. Carl’s statement “I’m not obsessed with money” is in stark contrast with the more than ten minutes long argument with Yaya, which, in fact, is about money (00:13:09). Carl claims that gender equality is his main point in the argument but the way he nags Yaya about her allegedly proposing to pay for dinner shows the viewer that there is perhaps a deeper meaning behind his seemingly unreasonable freak out; the gender wage disparity, which in regular world is generally unfair towards women, however in the modelling industry it is the male models that are paid less. 

The restaurant scene is shot in a way where the camera flashes back and forward between Yaya and Carl making it seem like a sports match and that is exactly what it is; a competition of who is right and who is wrong, who is the winner and who is the loser of the argument. A similar camera technique is used in the second scene when Carl and Yaya go home in a taxi, still arguing about money. The camera in this scene is used as a pendulum swinging from left to right, from Carl to Yaya, even further strengthening the impression of watching a game competition. 

We later learn that Yaya expects the man to be the provider in the relationship while she wants to take the status of a trophy wife whose looks are the transactional unit in the relationship. Her character is an antithesis to feminist struggles for female financial independence, and it contrasts with Carl’s attitude which raises doubts about the true nature of their relationship. The argument escalates in an elevator scene where Carl’s rage reaches its peak. The camera in this scene is aimed directly at Carl, recording him face-forward instigating in the viewer a feeling that Carl’s anger is aimed at them. And perhaps in a way, it is because what Carl is truly angry about is not the inequality created in their relationship by Yaya’s expectations; he is angry at the inequality created by the capitalistic patterns in society. As the feminist writer Anju Devadas writes in her review of Triangle of Sadness, “The subversion of gender in wage disparity helps dissect modern masculinity and manhood and aims to erasure stereotypical gender norms. This sneaky attack into modern relationships shows the intricacies of being a man and a woman nowadays”. Carl’s dissatisfaction with society and his social status in it is a persistent theme in succeeding two chapters as well. 

Probably the most shocking part of the whole movie happens at the end of the second chapter when the ship is caught in a storm, all the guests get sick during dinner and sea pirates attack the ship with grenades. While the storm is happening on the outside, we are shown a disturbing scene of expensively dressed people violently vomiting all over the luxury yacht. Ironically, it is this scene in which the status is diminished, and we are reminded that despite all the money, we are all human. 

In the final chapter, we see the characters stranded on a tropical island. After the turning point in the second chapter, the roles and status of the characters are completely reversed; Abigail (Dolly De Leon), who as the manager of the cleaning crew was at the bottom of the hierarchy at the yacht, is now the one with power. She secures this status as she is the only one who can catch fish and make fire which makes her a key to the survival of the whole island’s party. One would expect that after being stranded, the party would create an egalitarian system to survive, however, Abigail replicates the capitalistic patterns of the outside world and creates a new cycle of exploitation. She creates a sort of barter system where she exchanges food and shelter for sex with Carl who benefits from this relationship together with Yaya whom she gives some of the food he gets from Abigail. Ironically, this relationship with Abigail is parallel to his relationship with Yaya. In both relationships, each party somehow benefits from the relationship; Yaya uses Carl for social media content, Carl uses Yaya for her free trips, Abigail uses Carl for sex and Carl uses Abigail for food and shelter. Thus, this relationship is once again a transactional one with characteristics of a capitalistic society and reflects Carl’s true feelings for Yaya; once he cannot benefit from the relationship with her, he does not care for her. 

The movie ends with a scene of Abigail holding a stone over Yaya’s head after the two of them find a resort on the island suggesting that the island is not vacant and that they can be saved. Abigail apparently wants to kill Yaya to secure her social status on the island, which is better than the one she holds in the real world. This scene is alternated with a scene of Carl frantically running through the jungle presumably to save Yaya while upbeat dance music plays in the background creating a juxtaposition between what the viewer hears and what is happening on the screen. The ending and the triangular relationship between Abigail, Carl, and Yaya is the last manifestation of the movie’s title Triangle of Sadness.

What Östlund shows in his newest movie is an exaggerated and satirical view of post-modern relationships being intertwined with capitalism, taking the form of a transactional relationship founded on a mutual monetary benefit of both parties. However, the adjacent critique of social hierarchies and upper classes rings a bit ironic given the fact that, in theory, Östlund himself belongs to this class of people and is an active participant in the realms of capitalism. But perhaps it is this exact reason that makes the movie so enjoyable; we are all participating in the capitalistic society and all of us can relate to the characters and their struggles, no matter if it is the manager of the cleaning crew or a Russian oligarch. Therefore, Östlund’s satirical poke at the capitalistic society and the relationships in it is a poke at us all, revealing our innate desire for validation and success. 

Works Cited 

Link(2): Devadas, Anju, et al. “Triangle of Sadness (2022) Ending, Explained & Themes Analysed.” High On Films, 29 Nov. 2022, 

Triangle of Sadness. Directed by Ruben Östlund, performances by Harris Dickinson, Chrlbi Dean, and Dolly de Leon, Aerofilms, 2022. 

Karin Nestešová is a post-graduate student at Masaryk University in Brno. She studies English Language and Literature with the track in linguistics at the Department of English and American Studies at the Faculty of Arts. She graduated with a bachelor’s degree from the same department in 2020, and she is currently working on her diploma thesis regarding different language strategies that attorneys use to discredit witnesses during questioning in American jury-based courts.  

Latest from Current Issue

Go to Top