Mounting a critique of privilege at a film festival is inevitably an exercise in friendly fire. I’ll never forget watching The Queen of Versailles’ portrait of grotesque new-money excesses at Sundance’s opening-night gala, seated a few rows in front of Sen. Barbara Boxer and next to a charming older man who a few minutes earlier had been talking to me about his “good friend” Steve Young. But it’s an especially odd experience at Cannes, where screenings are held in a complex called the Palais du Cinéma, and reaching them involves navigating knots of movie stars in expensive formalwear and the throngs of onlookers hoping to catch a glimpse of them.
Cannes is one of the world’s greatest film festivals, and also one of its most status-driven. Unless you’re one of the lucky few who can snag a ticket by standing in the sun with a handmade sign, screenings are invitation-only, and even press access is tiered according to a notoriously opaque system of colored badges. (In an especially fun wrinkle, the festival won’t tell you your status until you show up in France, although apparently my rose badge is one of the better ones.) In other words, the audience might have been particularly ripe for Ruben Ostlund’s Triangle of Sadness, a blunt, rip-roaring satire about status anxiety. Set largely aboard a luxury superyacht of the kind that dot the harbor just beyond the screening rooms, the movie charts a vertiginous downward spiral through the circles of cringe hell, led by a pair of fashion model–slash-influencers played by Harris Dickinson and Charlbi Dean. In an early, powerfully uncomfortable scene, the couple engage in a tense argument about which of them is paying for dinner, a passive-aggressive standoff that grows less passive when he points out how she always manages to be distracted when the check shows up despite the fact that she’s the more successful of the two.
Those sorts of confrontations multiply exponentially once the beautiful couple climbs on board the megayacht, for an ultra-high-end cruise whose other passengers include a genial couple of elderly land mine manufacturers and an Eastern European oligarch who specializes in manure. (As he likes to put it, very loudly: “My business is shit!”) The faceoffs between the cruise’s elite participants and its service staff grow increasingly uncomfortable as the boat sails into choppy waters both figurative and literal, culminating in an uproarious sequence where the travelers, who’ve been advised to chow down on a series of colorful dishes to stave off seasickness, start spewing brilliant-hued upchuck all over themselves. As one critic for Slate France put it, en français, “I haven’t seen that much vomit since Jackass 3D.” (It turns out the French for “Jackass 3D” is “Jackass 3D.”) The BBC’s review wondered if Triangle of Sadness might be “the most disgusting film of 2022”—this in the same week as the debut of a new body horror film from David Cronenberg—but they meant it as a compliment.
Despite its class war broadsides, Triangle of Sadness got a reported eight-minute ovation at its formal premiere, and even the downscale press screening next door regularly rippled with laughter. (The film was picked up for distribution a few days later by Neon, who swept the Croisette with Parasite in 2019.) Although a handful of boos got the movie labeled “divisive”—the ideal result for a director whose brand is as a provocateur—it still seems, days later, a leading contender for the festival’s top prize, the Palme d’Or. What Triangle lacks in specificity it more than makes up for in gusto, but it’s also the kind of movie that almost anyone can walk away from without feeling implicated. It’s a critique you laugh at, rather than one you feel. The closest it comes to self-reflection is when Woody Harrelson’s yacht captain, a drunken leftist who screams quotations from Karl Marx and Edward Abbey during an argument, admits he can’t be a good socialist, because “I have too much stuff.”
By contrast, perennial Cannes favorite James Gray, back at the festival for his fifth time, is everywhere in Armageddon Time, the semi-autobiographical story of a kid from Queens whose blue-collar family’s social aspirations lead them down an ultimately monstrous path. Based on Gray’s own childhood experience of being transferred to the borough’s Kew-Forest School, which counts Donald Trump among its alumni (members of Trump’s family appear as characters), the movie begins as a soft-edged childhood reminiscence, complete with Anthony Hopkins as a twinkly-eyed grandfather, and turns increasingly and deliberately sour. Gray’s middle school stand-in, Paul Graff (Michael Banks Repeta), turns out to be exaggerating when he tells a Black friend (Jaylin Webb) it’s no problem for him to pay the field trip fee his classmate can’t afford because his parents are “rich,” but it’s only because his grasp of what the word means is so limited. (Likewise, he can’t seem to understand that his mother being president of the PTA doesn’t mean she runs the school.) He doesn’t yet understand his place in the world, or the options available to him—and especially that the latter aren’t equally available to everyone.
Paul’s parents, played by Jeremy Strong and Anne Hathaway, are working-class Democrats who scowl every time Ronald Reagan comes on the television, and she recoils when her mother makes a racist comment at the dinner table. But they’re also fixated on allowing their children to better themselves, and Gray unsparingly depicts how that superficially laudable and iconically American goal allows a gulf to yawn between their ideals and their actions. There’s rue in their voices when they tell their son that the world isn’t fair, but their solution is to make sure their kids have the tools to exploit the uneven playing field, not to instill in them a feeling of responsibility to level it. Any parent, especially any white parent, who isn’t moved to reflect on their choices is either much nobler than I am or in much deeper denial.
At the press conference for Armageddon Time, Gray was blunt about the film’s subject: “It’s impossible to look at the world,” he said, “and not see white privilege as one of the guiding mechanisms that are in existence.” But the industry bible Variety speculated that the movie’s depiction of “racial inequalities” might “turn off awards voters,” and the Hollywood Reporter said that its post-premiere ovation lasted a scant four minutes. (A separate account in the same publication counted six, which gives you some idea of the level of science involved.) Although Triangle of Sadness was labeled “divisive,” really it was Armageddon Time that seemed more sharply to divide viewers, with some lauding its subtle precision and others reading it as a too-cute-by-half fable that never holds its characters to account. Still others felt it was simply an inappropriate or at least ill-timed story to tell at all, yet another movie about a white person who learns from a Black person’s misfortune. Gray has made a movie about his family’s, and his own, complicity without making excuses, or even providing a neat resolution that suggests things will get better. (The movie ends in the early 1980s, so we know what happened next: They didn’t.) He’s staying in his lane but looking outside it, and trying to show us all the things he still can’t see.