Ruben Ostlund on Capitalism Satire ‘Triangle of Sadness’
Five years after snatching the 2017 Palme d’Or for The Square, Ruben Östlund is back in Cannes with another biting satire on the human condition. While his last film skewered the art industry, Triangle of Sadness draws a bead on the world of high fashion and the global 1 percent.
Harris Dickinson and Charlbi Dean star as a super-model couple who come from nothing, with beauty as their only ticket to the high life. (The film’s title refers to the term plastic surgeons use for a Botox treatment to fix wrinkles between the eyes). The international ensemble cast includes Woody Harrelson, Henrik Dorsin, Zlatko Buric, Iris Berben and Oliver Ford Davies.
Östlund spoke to The Hollywood Reporter ahead of Cannes about “the currency of beauty,” the real-life inspiration behind all his movies, and why his last three films form a “trilogy of male absurdity.”
I remember you talking about this film right after you won the Palme d’Or for The Square. Why did it take so long to make it?
I think it was a little bit of a post-success syndrome. Haven’t you noticed also that some directors, when they get a bit of success, become slower and the balloon of their next project gets bigger and bigger? The budget for this film is almost twice the budget of my previous films so it took a little bit longer to finance it. And then, of course, there was the pandemic. We had two stops in production because of COVID. We had to wait and replan.
I think it was a combination of the post-success syndrome and COVID which meant it took five years to make instead of my usual three, which is my normal working rhythm. It was a challenge to my stamina, to stay focused and interested in the content of the film for two more years. But I think it helped in the final result because I worked longer on the script. I think the stops with COVID helped too. I think it improved it because it’s a quite complex film. There are three very different parts: it stars in the fashion world. Then takes us to a luxury yacht and it ends up on a deserted island. Having more time was a good thing.
Your films are often inspired directly by your own life What was the initial spark that led to Triangle of Sadness?
It comes from when I met my wife, Susanna. She’s a fashion photographer. When I met her, I just wanted to hear everything about her work and the fashion industry and to get an insider’s perspective of that industry. I had an outsider’s perspective and thought that the world was very cynical. She started telling me interesting facts and stories about that world. And I got very interested in looking at beauty as a currency.
You know, if you are born beautiful, it can be something that can help you climb up in society, even if you don’t have money or an education. Beauty can be the one thing that really helps you climb. I think most of us are brought up by our parents saying ‘looks aren’t important but it’s so obvious we live in a world where looks are very important, maybe even more important today in this digital image world than they had been before.
I got specifically interested when Susan told me about the male models. For example, that male models earn a third or a quarter of what female models earn. And they have to maneuver amongst the powerful homosexual men in the industry who wants to sleep with them. And sleeping with them can be a door opener also for a career. This idea of sexuality and beauty as a currency for men I found interesting, in this world where we mostly see women dealing with these kinds of situations.
I decided the starting point of the film should be a male and a female model couple dealing with the fashion world and with being models. The male model is a bit on his way down and he is together with a female model on her way up. Neither of them comes from money, so beauty has been their ticket to higher society.
They get invited onto a luxury yacht because of her, because she has a huge Instagram following. The boat has this Marxist captain, played by Woody Harrelson. There’s a storm and they all end up on a deserted island, the models, a couple of billionaires, and a cleaning lady. And the cleaning lady is the only one who knows how to fish and how to make a fire. So she ends up in the top of the hierarchy on the island, the hierarchies have basically flipped. And the male model starts sleeping with the cleaning lady to get more fish.
It’s this materialistic view of the world, where how we behave is so dependent on the materialistic setup that we have around us.
You mentioned Instagram, which is the digital marketplace for this beauty currency you’re talking about. Did you research that world and what did you find out?
I found a survey that was given to five graders where they asked them: Do you want to be beautiful or do you want to be intelligent? And quite a shocking number of them said they’d rather be beautiful. But if you look at models in the industry today, they don’t only have to be beautiful, they need to be their own marketing department. In order to get work, you need like 200,000 followers on Instagram. Otherwise, you’re not even invited to castings to get jobs. This economic structure that we are in has drilled down to an inpidual level. You are your own brand, your own marketing channel, your own entrepreneur running your brand, which is your own persona.
I’ve heard you refer to this film as the last in a trilogy with Force Majeure and The Square. What links the three movies?
Well, I never planned it as a trilogy, but when I started looking at the content of the film and the main male characters, they are all struggling to deal with the expectations of what it is to be a man, with the role of the man and the cultural expectations. In Triangle of Sadness, for example, there’s a scene, the “bill scene,” where the male model and the female model are at a restaurant and the female model has said: ‘I’ll treat you.’ But when the bill comes, she doesn’t pick it up.
This comes directly from my own life. Where the bill is there and I just can’t handle it. I have to look at it. And then, immediately, the woman sitting across from me says ‘thank you so much.’ So then I have no other option than to pay. This actually happened between me and Susan. But I felt I like her so much, that I needed to take the bull by the horns and tell her what I’m feeling, and how uncomfortable I was with this stereotypical gender bias. I said: when you say thank you, you don’t give me any option, but to pay. Then she said: we can split the bill if you want, you know, take out the calculator and so on, and there was so much shame for me in that situation. I felt like I lost my manhood just in the moment I was bringing it up.
That’s something I feel a lot, where there’s a clash between who I want to be as a man and the situation I find myself dealing with. A lot of the scenes in these three films are based on situations I have experienced myself.
Your movies seem to suggest there is something inherently absurd about being a man in today’s world.
Quite often I feel trapped in the culture that I live in. I want to be somewhere else but cultural expectations are forcing me into a corner. There’s the dilemma between what I want to do and what I feel that I have to do. The absurdity comes from my writing because I write the scenes to make it as hard as possible for the characters to deal with the situation.
I try to corner the characters, and make it almost a sociological investigation of my own behavior. I try and change the parameters to make it harder and harder. But I want it always to be believable that the characters do what they do. However absurd it seems. And I don’t want it to be so specific about why the different characters do what they do, I want to give the feeling that all men, and all women can identify with the situation.
It’s close to stand-up comedy. Stand-up comedians often describe a very specific situation and then tell us how they tried to deal with it. It’s a certain kind of humor that is very easy to identify with.
And what was the most difficult or challenging scene to shoot for this film for you?
Well, I was I had an idea that the captain, the Marxist captain on the ship, would hold his captain’s dinner during a storm, like a bit of revenge on these super-rich guests that complicate his political worldview. So we have this seven-course dinner where, slowly, the passengers get more and more seasick and start throwing up. We built the ship’s interior in New York, the corridor and the dining room. And we put it on a gimbal, so we could tilt it 20 degrees both ways, so the furniture actually starts sliding across the room. To shoot that, as people get more and more seasick, and the captain, more and more drunk —he ends up reading from the communistic manifesto while everyone is puking around him —that was a big challenge and it took a long time. Also to edit it properly.
How did you cast the film? Not just Woody Harrelson but your two leads, Harris Dickinson and Charlbi Dean?
I did a lot of casting: in Berlin, Paris, London, New York, L.A., Stockholm, Copenhagen, in Manila in the Philippines. What I often do is sit with different actors and I play one of the parts. So in the bill scene, sometimes I’d play the woman, sometimes I’d play the man. I try it out and look for when I really feel there’s a dilemma there for the actor, where you can see that they are struggling with their morals, ethics and expectations, expressing that in a believable and strong way.
Harris Dickinson I tried out in London and he just did a fantastic improvisation when we were doing this bill scene.
Charlbi Dean came to Sweden and did an improvisation and she was so good, she knew exactly what to say to corner the man.
With Woody Harrelson, I was just very curious to work with him. I have loved him since his work with Milos Forman and Oliver Stone. But when casting, I need to be able to say: I’m confident you can play this part well, so please come along on this project. It will be fun and challenging but I’m taking full responsibility that you’ll deliver a great performance. It’s rare that I give out a part to someone because they’re famous or have a “name.”
How much improvisation do you do when the camera starts rolling?
What works best for me is first to improvise around the script. Basically, every time I have the camera in position I see there is something in the script or the set-up that’s not 100 percent organic. I don’t believe it. So almost every shoot we have to change something, and improvise around it.
But I set markers for the actors —what the scene is about and where we’re going is very often very fixed. So I start the day trying out the scene, telling the actors: please don’t say what’s in the script if you don’t feel it’s 100 percent possible for you, as a human being, to say that. Actors can be very skillful in saying any line in a believable way. But I want them to defend what they think is true. If the line doesn’t work, we change the setup a little bit and see if it works then. We try and find an organic way for the scene to play out.
So we do take after take, and I’m trying to sculpt the scene, making it more compact, taking away everything that is not needed. Around take 20 it peaks and you feel the energy slipping. Then you take a break. After that break, we come back to set and I say: OK everybody, five takes left. I start the countdown: take five! Take four! Take three! I try to build up an intense feeling like this is an important football game that we have to win together. The last five takes are often very similar, it’s small nuances. We’ve gotten away from improvisation because I want it to be precise. Often, and this is very strange, it’s the second-to-last take that’s the best.
This time when I was shooting, in order to create this sense of presence for the actors, I got everyone to stand around the camera and look at the actors, to give them their full attention. Then a got a gong and I rang it: boom! The sound died down and then, quietly: “action”.
You’ve finished your trilogy of male absurdity. What are you planning to do next?
My next film will take place on a long-haul flight. But soon after the takeoff, the crew tells the passengers the entertainment system is done. So now everyone has like 14 hours in a non-digital entertainment world, where they have to sit together and can’t distract themselves with their screens.
I think it will be very interesting to look at the modern human being trying to deal with an analog world without these distractions. There are also some really interesting facts about flights. There’s this term Air Rage, where a passenger gets so angry that they have to do an emergency landing. And the rate of Air Rage increased by four when economy passengers have boarded the plane through business class. So it’s very dangerous to have a plane, or society, where you are forced to move through a privileged group on your way back to economy.