To watch a Ruben Östlund film — like The Square, Force Majeure, or his new film Triangle of Sadness — is to plunge yourself into an unpredictable vortex. A master of satire, Östlund seems gleefully unafraid of horrifying his audiences, but every squirm is accompanied by a guffaw. And as 2017’s The Square took on the art world, Triangle of Sadness sets its sights on the worlds of modeling and high luxury, veering from a casting call to a cruise ship to something much more deranged. (Also, there’s a lot of bodily fluids. This is not a film for the weak-stomached.)
But Östlund, who is Swedish, is not the sarcastic pessimist you might expect. Yes, his films make fun of humanity, but he sees them more as sociological studies than targeted polemics against the rich and ridiculous. Any of us, stuck into an existing societal system, might be these people, he says. None of us are inherently above the fray.
Triangle of Sadness — named for the patch of skin between the eyebrows, which a model might manipulate to express emotion or Botox to suppress it — is a wild ride, and it netted Östlund his second Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, where it premiered earlier this summer. Now, with the film coming to theaters on October 7, he seems fascinated by the audience’s reactions. I talked with Östlund by Zoom about his approach, how to make a scene funny, and what zebras tell us about fashion.
I’ve heard people say that they think the film is cynical.
Sometimes I hear people say, “Oh, I would never like to have dinner with Ruben Östlund. Such a misanthrope. He probably hates other people,” and so on. If you ask my friends, I hope they would say something completely different, because I love socializing. I love discussion, and I think that my general viewpoint on human beings is that we are very good at collaborating.
But I have a little bit of a sociological approach to the content of my films. If you look at sociology, it’s beautiful, because it dares to look at human beings when we fail. It creates a set-up and a situation where we can identify with failure. I am more interested in when we are failing. I’m interested in sins, where we don’t live up to the idea of what it is to be a good human being.
I try to corner myself when I’m writing the scripts with the kind of situation that I’m getting interested in. What would I do? How would I react? I can identify with the bad behavior.
We have so many movies that are dealing with humans being heroes, and where we also are simplifying hard topics to a “good guy” and a “bad guy.” I just don’t think that that kind of approach gives me so much to work with.
It can lead to boring stories.
Yes. And also, it is too focused on individuals, with trying to find explanations — is this a good person or a bad person? For me, I try to look at all the characters from a neutral perspective, that they have the ability to do good things. We also have the ability to do bad things. People want me to tell them, “No, that deep inside of us, we are actually good, all of us.” For me, that is kind of obvious. For me, it’s not even important to communicate that.
Do you think of your films as satirical?
Yes. It’s the easiest way to communicate that I am dealing with humor, or dark comedy maybe. It’s hard to only call it satire, but I have also used that because it’s the best way of communicating that the audience should be free to react both in a laughing way and maybe being horrified sometimes.
So much of satire is about exaggeration that it’s hard not to laugh and to be horrified. That’s true of all of your work. When I was at Cannes, getting ready to watch Triangle of Sadness, I started thinking about when I saw your previous film The Square in the same theater. I remember the moment in that film that shocked me so much that I couldn’t help but laugh. And this film definitely upped the ante. Do you see your work as being connected, or do you see each of them as being separate from the others?
No, definitely not separate. I approached the world of fashion and the world of luxury cruises in the same way that I approached the world of art [in The Square]. I was looking at the art world from an economical perspective a little bit. And then the same thing from the fashion world. It’s always interesting when you look at it from the economical perspective, because so many things that maybe seem absurd from the outside then start to make sense.
What kind of research do you do in order to make a movie about those kinds of worlds?
Well, when it came to the fashion world, I was talking a lot to my wife, who is a fashion photographer.
I also try to find sociological studies because they’re good to use as an example of what I’m aiming for.
There is this study that I think is very interesting and makes 100 percent sense. A scientist was looking at zebras on the savannah. He was asking himself, “Why are they black and white when they are in the savannah?” He tried to spot one [specific zebra] and follow it when it was in the herd. It turns out, it’s almost impossible to do because it disappears in the herd immediately. Then they sprayed a red dot on the side of its fur, and then it was possible to follow it. But what also happened was that lions could spot it and tire it out and take it out immediately. So the camouflage that they have is not to hide in the savannah, it’s to hide in the herd.
The scientist was saying human beings work exactly in the same way when we are consuming clothes. That’s why the fashion industry is very efficient when they are changing fashion every fall and every spring because then we have to consume new clothes in order to fit into the herd that we don’t want to pop out from.
That’s so striking. I seem to get a ton of videos in my TikTok feed about how I, a millennial, need to change all my clothes in order to have the style of a 22-year-old. And I keep thinking, “Why would I want to do that?” But I guess it’s to fit back into the herd.
Yeah. But it’s interesting that we are herd animals and that we are constantly trying to maneuver our position in a hierarchy. There is danger in popping out from a herd, which I investigated a little bit in The Square with the monkey performance artist. If you just sit still and don’t show yourself, maybe someone else will be the prey.
Is that why Triangle of Sadness starts in a model casting room but ends with the cast literally trying to stay alive among wildlife?
Yeah, I was interested in looking at beauty as a currency. I wanted to investigate at first in the fashion world, which has super strong hierarchies, and then go to the luxury world, which has maybe even more absurd hierarchies. When I knew that it was going to be a woman, a Filipino toilet manager, that would be at the top of the hierarchy, I was very curious to see how Carl would relate to his beauty currency if he gets very hungry, and if he’s like, “Okay, I really need to use everything I have.”
One thing that struck me the second time I saw the movie is that you’re good at making images that are inherently funny, for reasons I don’t even know why. Maybe there’s just a boat on the horizon, but for some reason it makes me want to laugh. Do you have a theory about how to make something funny, just when you look at it?
I think that real-time aspect often helps a certain kind of humor that comes out. For example, if someone is vomiting, and then you stay with them half a minute after the vomit, then the trivialities that are happening afterward — “Oh, I’m so sorry, I have to go to the toilet” — the social awkwardness comes out. When you have a fixed frame that’s staying still with some distance from the subject, then it’s registering our actions and what we do, rather than evaluating them. You can highlight small things, and then it becomes comical.
It sort of reminds me of these Renaissance paintings, where there’s just a ton going on in the image, and maybe there’s a guy doing something silly in the background or a dog peeking over the frame, and it’s funny to look at.
Do you set up the frame and let things happen in it? How choreographed is it?
It is very choreographed. What I do is that in the beginning of the day, when we set up the frame, we start to investigate the scene and start to look at how people should move in the frame. Then you sculpt the scene slowly. In the end, I do many takes, often up to 20. Then I take a break.
When the actors come back on set, I say, “Five takes left.” And then I do a countdown. “Four takes left. Come on now.” “Three takes left.” I’ve started to gather the whole film team around the camera, so we give them maximum attention, so they feel like they are playing an important football game. It’s the world championship. And now we have two takes left.
And then in the last take, I’ve also started to use a gong. So you go like [mimes banging a gong and letting it ring out], “Action.”
Well, there’s the structure of this “quote-off” going on in the middle of a scene, with the sea captain and a Russian capitalist oligarch trading quotations from Marx and Reagan and Thatcher and Lenin. Did you have all those quotations in your back pocket?
I was brought up in a family where my mother became leftish in the ’60s, and we were discussing a lot of politics in my family. My brother became a liberal right-wing. And every Sunday dinner we had, it was always these two ideological bashes.
I was reminded of when I wrote the script that, during the ’80s, when you looked at the world, it was very strongly from a Western perspective or an Eastern perspective. There was the free liberal capitalistic idea about society on the Western side, and the socialistic idea about the state on the Eastern side. When I started to Google quotes from these times, it was so fun to go in and look at it, because Reagan and Thatcher had humor. The people on the left wing, they didn’t really have any humor. Their quotes were much more dry, so I had to search much more in order to find the humoristic quotes from the left wing. It was just enjoyable to be reminded about those days.
It does feel like that scene has the only truly sincere moment is when Woody Harrelson basically says, “I’m a bad socialist because I like my stuff too much.” It feels like a confession.
I think he’s wrong, actually.
Because I think that you can’t blame yourself for your dreams. They come from a culture that you are brought up in. The conflict of being a human being is that we have our primary basic needs, and at the same time we have a culture, and we are living in conflict with the culture that we are living in. Sometimes we are dreaming about things that we actually wish that we didn’t dream of, that we wish that we were someone else. But it’s not possible to take us out of the culture and make us into solitary individuals that are just living our life in a non-hypocritical way. I don’t like the word “hypocrite.”
So are there other slices of culture you want to explore?
My next film is going to be called The Entertainment System Is Down. It’s a funny title, right? It takes place on a long-haul flight. Soon after takeoff on a 15-hour flight, London to Sydney or something, passengers get the horrible news that the entertainment system is not working.
I have been interested in the way that we are consuming images and the algorithm that is constantly distracting us, and it’s very enjoyable, but it’s also controlling us in some way. Someone told me that a literature professor was comparing Orwell’s 1984 with Huxley’s Brave New World. He said, “Okay, we didn’t end up in the totalitarian state controlling us. We ended up in Huxley’s Brave New World, where we have an entertainment machine that we love [holds up phone], but at the same time that is completely controlling us.” So the next thing is that, but going to take place in the body of an airplane that basically is a sociological lab to study our behavior.
I got on a flight from New York to Sydney five years ago without realizing that there wasn’t internet on the plane. I had all these plans for what I was going to do, and I couldn’t do it, and I was freaking out.
On the crew?
Well, no. I’m a very nice person on a plane, but internally. I had to have a drink.
There’s a term called air rage. That is when the passengers are freaking out so much that they have to do an emergency landing. Studies have shown that if you board the plane through Business Class, when you go to the economy coach, then the risk for air rage is doubled by four.
I believe that completely.
Triangle of Sadness opens in theaters on October 7.