Early on in “Triangle of Sadness,” a fashion talent scout explains to a male model that the bit of face above the nose and between the eyebrows is his “triangle of sadness.” Well, it’s not just his, it’s everyone’s.
The writer-director Ruben Östlund is flagging the viewer that the grotesque, heartless, and narcissistic behavior of the characters in “Triangle” is representative of human nature generally. So fasten your seat belt — or life jacket, since much of the film is set on a luxury cruise — and consider yourself warned.
“Triangle of Sadness,” which is playing at the Coolidge Corner and Kendall Square, won the Palme d’Or at Cannes last spring. This is the second time Östlund has won, previously doing so with “The Square” (2017). He has a rare talent for taking social awkwardness and making it an engine of plot, as in “Force Majeure” (2014). That awkwardness is very much on display here, though taken to ludicrous, even nasty lengths. Satire and burlesque are neighbors. They’re not necessarily friends.
The male model is named Carl (Harris Dickinson, “The King’s Man,” “Where the Crawdads Sing”). His girlfriend, Yaya (the late Charlbi Dean) is an influencer. A male model? An influencer? Say this for Östlund, he’s not afraid of stacking the occupational deck against his characters.
Yaya’s influencing has earned them passage on this very high-thread-count trip. It’s so exclusive it’s on a $250 million yacht. A Carnival cruise ship this is not. Other passengers include an elderly English couple whose money comes from arms manufacturing — speaking of stacked occupational decks — and, inevitably, a Russian oligarch (Zlatko Burić). Burly and voluble, Dimitry is the closest anyone in the movie comes to having a pulse. Woody Harrelson, in an extended cameo, plays the ship’s captain. That’s a pretty funny idea. The fact that he’s a Marxist who’s always three sheets to the wind isn’t.
The yacht is a kind of society in miniature — Plato’s ship of fools as modern-day microcosm. The passengers are the rich. That’s obvious enough. The stewards and other uniformed attendants are the middle class. The cleaning staff, all of them Asian women, are the lower class. Don’t think Östlund gives the non-rich a pass. Before the cruise starts, the chief steward (Vicki Berlin, who gives the movie’s best performance) delivers a rousing pep talk to the staff. It concludes with everyone chanting, “Money! Money! Money!” Say it loud and it’s almost like praying. The one cleaning woman who emerges as a character, Abigail (Dolly De Leon), turns out to have a dark, ugly side when the plot takes a serious landward swerve.
Östlund has a cool, dispassionate eye. He’s fond of long shots. They’re a moral version of social distancing. Visually, everything feels worked out in his head. He’s a bit Kubrickian that way, though without the master’s compositional gift. Östlund’s in control of each scene as the characters in them definitely are not.
Control is not to be confused with subtlety. After a particularly messy dinner, “Lush Life” plays on a player piano while the cleaning staff picks up after the guests. The English couple are named Winston and Clementine (as in Churchill). Dimitry’s piles of cash come from piles of fertilizer, and if you have a hard time figuring out what other kinds of piles fertilizer comes from, he makes it explicit. A storm at sea produces enough projectile vomiting to float a battleship, if not sink a yacht.
Precise, expert execution can’t compensate for forced situations and an unenforced imaginative rigor. It’s not so much that all the characters are so unsympathetic. It’s that they’re all so uninteresting. Caricature without gusto is shrink wrap covering . . . shrink wrap.
Östlund no doubt regards himself as a moralist. Presumably, the jury at Cannes did, too. Morality, though, assumes some exercise of human sympathy, otherwise it’s simply superiority engaged in self-congratulation. It’s true that a satirist has to cast a cold eye. That’s part of the job description. Cold is different from pitiless, and pitilessness is what Östlund has to offer. Now you might argue that none of these people is deserving of pity, even poor, exploited Abigail. But isn’t that another way of saying none of them is deserving of attention — let alone two hours and 27 minutes’ worth?
TRIANGLE OF SADNESS
Written and directed by Ruben Östlund. Starring Harris Dickinson, Charlbi Dean, Zlatko Burić, Vicki Berlin, Dolly De Leon. At Coolidge Corner, Kendall Square. 147 minutes. R (language, some sexual content, general heartlessness)
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.