Triangle of Sadness, a prickly but laugh-out-loud social comedy from acclaimed director Ruben Östlund made landfall in local cinemas last week Friday. We asked Östlund about his work, process, and perspective:
I don’t think there are too many directors who would be as comfortable as you are in making the audience uncomfortable, you’ll sublimate an argument with a creaky windshield wiper or a buzzing fly or focus in on a really awkward exchange. What’s your interest in scenes like this?
Maybe it’s really connected with candid camera and sociology. With candid camera, it’s very often like, okay, you have one person that doesn’t know about the set-up and everyone else knows about the set up, and you can see how that person is reacting in a situation. And there is something, how you say, uncomfortable about dealing with broken social contracts and the fear of not fitting in. I have always been interested in the fear of losing face, the fear of being exposed in a group and the fact that we are, how you say, herd-animals and how that fact influences us.
It’s almost like, if you look at the word awkward, and uncomfortable, it’s the same kind of feeling as when you’re watching violence in movies; you don’t have to participate in it, you can look at it from a distance, and that triggers you, it gives you a little kick, but it’s safe. So, the fear of socially awkward situations is something that I enjoy watching and enjoy exploring, and I think most of us do actually. It’s kind of like, cringe, but ‘Oh my God, I’m so happy it’s not me!’.
On the subject of candid camera, you’ve spoken about YouTube influencing your work before, did anything from the platform inform Triangle of Sadness?
There’s two clips I often talk about when I get this question – I also got this question during a Q and A now recently in Italy. And one clip is Denver the official Guilty Dog. It’s an owner who comes home and realizes the dogs have eaten the kitty-cat treats, and he walks over to dog number one – Lucy, I think it was – and is like: ‘Lucy, did you do this?’, you know? And then it doesn’t seem as if it’s Lucy, and he walks over to Denver, and Denver is expressing shame in a way that I have never seen shame expressed. It’s like he – he can’t look up at his owner, you know, it’s like that kind of facial expression. So, I showed that to the actors before we were shooting a scene; ‘Okay, this is the kind of expression of shame that we are going to try to do even better’. I don’t think we succeeded.
Well, I think I know which scene, so I think it landed – something involving pretzels?
At one point you said that “I want to become free as a filmmaker and not be too much in the art-house niche”, and I think the outrageousness of the movie reflects that, it’s very entertaining, but I’m curious whether or not you were surprised when you took home the Palme D’or regardless?
Yes, of course, I was surprised. I definitely thought that maybe we will win a prize, but I didn’t think that they would give it once again to a film director who’d won it for his previous film, it’s so seldom that that’s happened. But, you know, I also think that maybe the world of cinema is longing for a certain kind of approach to cinema that is, how you say, inviting to the audience. And for me there is a difference between the American industry and the European industry: the European industry has been dealing more with intellectual content where we are trying to discuss our society and so on, the American industry is more connected to… just an industry, the entertainment industry and so on.
So, I wanted to make a combination between the American way of really bringing in the audience, but also the European way of discussing something in our society. And all of a sudden you realize that this is basically what the European cinema was doing during the ’70s and ’80s, there were great examples of that like Lina Wertmüller and Buñuel and these kinds of directors. I think that the people that are in Cannes, who work in cinema, are longing for this approach, like, ‘give the audience a hell of a show at the same time that we’re talking about something important’.
Charlbi Dean, who stars in the film as Yaya, was born right here in Cape Town, and she also appeared in two of our most beloved films, though her work on Triangle of Sadness makes it clear she had a great career ahead of her before she sadly passed away earlier this year. What was it like working with Charlbi?
It was fantastic, it was an honour to be working with Charlbi Dean. First of all, she was playing a character that is so far off from who she really was; Charlbi was a very nice and caring person, and in Yaya she plays a very high-status person – she’d do – for all the scenes that we were shooting together, she was a very precise actress, you could say something like ‘Okay, play the same scene once again, but play it as if you are really high status, play it as if you are losing your status after about half of the scene.’ And she did it like ‘Okay, like that.’ – an actress who was easy to direct.
I had a memory of working with her, and together with the ensemble in Greece. Since we shot during the pandemic, the whole ensemble become like a football team, we were working together, and Charlbi was definitely one of the team players, lifting up her colleagues and so on. So, I really hope that the audience will pay tribute to her performance in this film and what she has done before, because she was a great actress.
She really was. After the pandemic-lengthened shoot, you spent about 22 months in postproduction, and reportedly you would revise the film continually based on test-screenings, I wonder whether the extended sea-sickness sequence was altered much during this process, made longer or shorter?
I actually was cutting it down a little bit, but not because of the reaction from the audience, rather because when a scene stretches out for too long, the part of the film that comes afterwards suffers from it, so you also have to kill some darlings, even though it has nothing to do with the content of it. So, my goal when I made that scene was that I wanted to go ten steps further than the audience would expect me to go, because often when you depict something like vomiting, or something that is considered gross, if you just do it for a little bit, it doesn’t become anything, but if you push it further and further and further, all of a sudden it actually becomes something – it becomes like an image of something. It’s commenting on something.
So, it was very important for me to do that, but when you are editing, sitting in editing by yourself, you become completely neutralized by the images; I don’t react to them at all. So, it was very interesting when I showed the film for the first time to an audience that didn’t know anything about it, and they were screaming straight out, like there were people leaving. It was… interesting.
Well, keeping that scene in mind, correct me if I’m wrong but it seems you use food in an interesting way throughout the film, as a point of financial contention at the restaurant at the start of the film, then as decadence that turns against the yacht passengers when they fall ill, and as a basic necessity on the island. Was this a conscious move, or a byproduct of the plot?
No, I think you’re 100% right, but I was not so outspoken with it, I think that I was… I thought it was fun for an example when Yaya was taking pictures of herself pretending to eat pasta and then pushing the pasta away; that on the yacht there was not really any problem with the food and the resources, but then I knew of course that on the island they would become so hungry that Carl would even sell his body in order to get more food, so there was a shift in that which I was aware of, but it was interesting that you also talked about the bills and that one being connected to food in some way, I guess it comes from the set-up but it’s an interesting take.
Do you have an opinion on who won quote off between the ship’s Marxist Captain and the Russian Capitalist?
Ha, well I think that… the last one is the captain saying it – NO, okay, no, it’s an even; no one won. It’s a draw. [Chuckles] It’s a draw.
Fair enough, though I imagine that whenever you’re dealing with opposing ideologies like that, there are probably going to be people who misunderstand the film. Have you met or heard of anyone who completely misjudged the film as a mouthpiece?
I think that some people have said that ‘Oh, politically it’s too clear what you want’ and then I want to ask them, ‘But, what is my political standpoint?’. Because then I think that they are interpreting things in completely the wrong way. And sometimes I hear, you know, it’s a criticism towards capitalism, which, you know, it would be silly, even if you’re left wing, to not admit that capitalism has improved our society so much, so the discussion of the political can be… maybe it’s put into pockets a little bit too easily. But, for me, the captain and the oligarch, they almost represent a kind of era in the ’80s, where we had the Western neoliberalist, capitalistic world, and the East which was the socialist world, which were bashing their heads against each other, almost like two football teams. You were cheering for one of them, you know, and not picking the best parts and saying ‘Hey, how do we create a great society?’. It was almost like, okay, you’re a fan of a certain ideology.
You’re up to two Palme D’ors at this point, is the Oscar still a bucket list item? What’s next for you?
The Oscars… it would be great to have an Oscar in the bookshelf next to the Palme D’Ors, that’s all I can say [chuckles]. The Oscars, it’s a little bit of a different race, and for me, Cannes is really representative of something about cinema that I believe is where I want to be.
And yes, I’m working on my next project. I’m working on a film called The Entertainment System Is Down, and it takes place on a long-haul flight, you know one of these flights that are over 15 hours or something like that, and quite soon after take-off the passengers get the horrible news that the entertainment system is not working, so when their iPhone and iPad charges run out, we have these modern human beings who are complete addicts, using this [gestures with his phone], that have to deal with analog boredom. And I can tell you that the flight will crash, and everybody will die. [Laughs] So, we already know this when the film starts, so we will look at the last hours of humanity, how we’re desperately complaining about how the compensation for the entertainment system not working is a cheese sandwich and mineral water – [laughs] – they are crazy about this.
Well, I remember first hearing about Triangle of Sadness and that it was a Ruben Östlund movie, thinking ‘Oh I have to see that, this is going to be great’, I think now The Entertainment System is Down is my next watchlist item.
Ah, great, thank you.