When he won his second consecutive Palme d’Or in May, Ruben Östlund joined the elite of the elite, a fittingly ironic fate for a filmmaker whose new movie is an acidic, vomit-drenched satire of the ultrarich. Set partly on a megayacht populated by Russian oligarchs and British arms dealers, Triangle of Sadness sends up the foibles of society’s highest echelons as well as the influencers who get to rub elbows with them. The latter are embodied by Carl (Harris Dickinson) and Yaya (Charlbi Dean, who died tragically young in August), a coupled pair of fashion models whose personal and professional precarity is belied by their displays of borrowed luxury. (As Carl explains to one legitimately wealthy passenger, they are mostly paid in “free stuff.”) After thoroughly establishing a hierarchy based on economic might—including a scene where the oligarch’s wife forces the yacht’s entire crew to abandon their duties and dive into the ocean as a way of proving that “we’re all equal”—the movie upends it when the ship sinks and a handful of survivors surface on a deserted island, where the practical skills of a cleaning lady (Dolly de Leon) suddenly place her at the top of the pyramid.
The son of a Swedish Communist, Östlund loves watching the privileged squirm—even and perhaps especially when they’re middle-class white men like him. Triangle’s centerpiece is a bravura sequence in which the yacht’s passengers are served a sprawling banquet in rough seas and then vomit it back up in spectacular fashion, but its heart is a deeply squirmy confrontation between Carl and Yaya over which of them will pick up a dinner check. It’s uproariously funny and deeply discomforting, even when it’s not simply turning your stomach. Östlund spoke to Slate about picking the most disgusting dishes for his fantasy feast, raiding his own life for uncomfortable moments, and finding an actress who could vomit on cue. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Sam Adams: A lot of directors worry about spoiling their movie in interviews, but you’ve been telling people about the third act of Triangle of Sadness since you were doing press for your previous movie, The Square, and you’re now talking freely about the movie you plan to do next—The Entertainment System Is Down, about the chaos that erupts on a long-haul flight when digital distractions are eliminated. Is preserving the plot just not that important to you?
Ruben Östlund: At least when it comes to myself, I look at movies in a different way than that. I don’t look at what will happen. I look at it more like, Wow, I want to see this. I’ve heard that Lars von Trier is doing a film about the end of the world. I want to see, OK, how is it going to be portrayed? If you look at YouTube, it’s very often in the description of the clip—we get to know exactly what we’re going to see. So when I click on it, it’s like, How is this going to play out?, rather than, What will happen? The skill of trying to portray something is what I enjoy, to see how someone is handling the specific situation.
When it comes to talking about the content, for me it was a way of getting to know how I should write and direct the film. When I’m pitching the film over and over again, very often someone is telling me about something they have experienced that is in a similar setup, and then I’m like, “Wow, can I take that idea and put it into the script?” When I know how to tell a film from the beginning to the end, more or less, then I start to write it down.
So you tell people what the movie’s about, and they tell you stories it reminds them of, and sometimes those stories end up in the script. But some of the stories come from you, including the confrontation early in the movie between Carl and Yaya. You’ve established that female models get paid more than men, and also that he’s already past the peak of his career, but she still expects him to pick up the tab for their expensive dinners, even though they’ve talked about splitting things evenly. What inspired that?
I was writing this film, and it was about beauty as a currency. And I felt I didn’t have a scene that was connecting me to the theme on a personal level. I was just thinking back about the last couple of years that I’ve spent together with my then-girlfriend and now wife, and I remembered in the beginning of our relationship, when we met, I was very interested in her, I wanted to impress her, and I invited her to come when I was on the jury at Cannes [in 2016]. I pay for the first dinner. I pay for the second dinner. I pay for the third dinner. And I started to feel, It’s a little bit of an unbalance here now. Then she says, “Oh, tomorrow I will invite you.” And I was like, Phew, she’s thinking about what I’m dealing with. Thank God, you know? But the thing is that when we are sitting there the next day and the bill comes on the table, she doesn’t pick it up. And the time aspect: If you’re a man, and the bill is laying there on the table, it’s much more painful. So the whole scenario plays out: You fight and you’re close, you get to be friends again, but then the fight blossoms up again. We were walking home. We were not in a cab. But it was exactly like what happens in the elevator [in the movie]: her stuffing a 50-euro note down my shirt, and I’m freaking and pushing the 50-euro note between the elevator doors. If you go to the Martinez, the hotel in Cannes, and you look into the elevator shaft, probably this 50-euro bill is still lying down there.
I’m glad it worked out and you’re still together.
Yes, thank you.
Your movies are so much about losing face, or desperately trying not to, and that extends to the moments around those movies as well. A lot of people first got to know you from the viral video of you reaction to Force Majeure not getting nominated for an Oscar. That’s a moment a lot of people would want to hide from the camera.
Yeah. But I think there is something about when people are showing themselves in a private moment that we maybe feel is something we want to hide from other people. In my experience, as soon as you go to that point, people just recognize themselves. So the further I go into these painful moments that I have, I feel that more people are with me. Ah, I’ve been in the same situation, it was horrible, you know? And I think it’s also the kind of people I spend time together with, all we enjoy to talk about is when we have failed in some way. To brag about your own success and then when you have been a good human being and so on—you don’t talk about these things with your friends. With your friends you expose your weaker sides. Me personally, I’m not so interested when we succeed. I’m much more interested when we don’t manage to live up to the idea of who we should be. So that’s why I basically only deal with these kind of situations in my movies. It’s not that I necessarily think that human beings are bad or that they are mean to people and so on, but it’s just the kind of situations that I enjoy investigating.
The movie’s big set piece takes place on a yacht, involving an elaborate multicourse meal served in the middle of a violent storm that the guests refuse to stop eating even when many of them are vomiting it back up. It’s a fantastic sequence, and it’s also the most technically complicated thing you’ve ever done, including building an enormous set on a gimbal so you could tilt the entire thing.
It’s always fun when you talk about the films, because then you are completely free in your mind, so you can come up with the most crazy ideas. And then when you suddenly realize what kind of project you have started, you sometimes can get a little scared. So when we started to build this gimbal and we realized what kind of huge studio set we needed and what kind of machinery we needed—because this dining room, it’s huge—sometimes I feel like a little boy, that I’ve been playing with small figures, like it’s sport, and being a little too violent. And then all of a sudden, what have I created? Why could I believe that I could pull this off?
But since I started to make Force Majeure and The Square, I felt that there was a possibility to be a little bit more wild and entertaining when we are doing films, even if they are dealing with something that I think is important and interesting. There was a friend I was flying from the Venice Film Festival to the Toronto [International] Film Festival. And he was looking over people’s shoulders, like, “What is our industry looking at? What movies are we looking at when we are sitting on an airplane?” And he was like, “We are not looking at our own movies. We are looking at Adam Sandler.” I felt I wanted to make movies like Buñuel and Lina Wertmüller in the ’70s, where there was no contradiction between being entertaining and dealing with something that they thought was important. When it came to Triangle of Sadness, I was thinking fashion world, luxury world, deserted island. I want to be in all those three environments. And wow, they are in the same film. What? Now I want to click on it.
You put the actors through a lot in that sequence: not just vomiting, but having to roll around on the ship as it pitches back and forth, eventually getting sprayed with fake shit. Sunnyi Melles especially, who plays the wife of a Russian oligarch, really gets thrown around a lot, and she’s 64. One moment she’s sipping champagne, the next she’s sliding around the floor of a bathroom and knocking into the walls. Did you talk to her about how physical the role was going to be?
The funny thing about Sunnyi is Sunnyi is the princess of Wittgenstein. Her title is from the old German order. Sunnyi Melles is one of the most physical actors that I’ve ever met. When she was doing the casting for the part, she told me, “I’ve been on the theater stage and played over 100 performances when I’m throwing up.” She actually has the ability of provoking vomiting by herself.
When we shot some of the scenes, like where she was sliding on the floor and so on, of course you are concerned: “Oh my God, did we go too far?” But she only wanted to go further. I’ve worked with a lot of actors. I started off making ski films. I have never met someone who is more willing to take a physical challenge than Sunnyi Melles. And I think everybody on set was astonished by what she was doing.
How did you choose the dishes for the banquet, knowing that most of them were going to be spewing out of people’s mouths later on? The bright-orange caviar looks especially spectacular on the way out.
Well, we worked with a Michelin Guide chef in Sweden. We just asked him, “OK, so if you’re on a yacht and people are struggling with seasickness, what would be the worst thing you could put on a plate in front of them?”
The second half of that yacht sequence is essentially a verbal battle between Woody Harrelson’s socialist yacht captain and the Russian ultracapitalist, where they’re looking up quotations from Ronald Reagan and Karl Marx on their phones and trying to one-up each other. Where did that idea come from?
I’m brought up in a left-wing family, and my mother still considers herself a Communist. My brother became more liberal right-wing. At home, we had these very loud political discussions every time we had a Sunday dinner. So I thought it was interesting to go back into the ’80s and where those two ideologies, they were bashing their heads against each other. So I loved to go back to look at these quotes. It was interesting to see also because it’s almost like you understand why neoliberal capitalism won, because they had so much more fun. I was going through quotes for a long, long time, and I had to fight to find socialist quotes where there was humor in it. We were looking at Reagan also, on YouTube, and it’s so fun to go and look at Reagan’s speeches where he performs. He was a great performer. It was a joyful thing to do.
Maybe this is too obvious, but it’s tempting to see you in Woody Harrelson’s character, who is ideologically leftist but can’t live up to his ideals because he has “too much abundance in my life.” Are you, as he drunkenly puts it, a “sit shocialist”?
I think in some ways what he’s saying is kind of silly, actually, because I think it’s impossible to live in this world and not participate in it. For an example, people saying, “If you don’t like Facebook, why are you using it?” Well, all of my friends are on Facebook, so what should I do? To call someone a hypocrite, it comes very often from the right-wing perspective: “You shouldn’t talk about a better society, because you’re a hypocrite. Look at yourself.” We can’t separate ourselves from the culture that we live in. I really have had a lot of discussions in Sweden about this, because it’s almost like we’re trying to disqualify someone’s engagement in a society by saying, “Yeah, you have to be like Bernie Sanders, who’s flying economy.” It’s silly to put the blame on the individual in that way, I think.
The right loves to call liberals out on being hypocrites, but it’s much easier not to betray your ideals when you don’t have any. It’s like, “Ha-ha, we caught you trying to believe in something.”
Ah, exactly. You’re right. 100 percent right.