Ruben Östlund on Communism, Superyachts and Saving Face

Ahead of the UK premiere of ‘Triangle of Sadness’, the Swedish director talks to Rory O’Connor about his latest jab at the mega rich

BY Rory O'Connor in Film , Interviews | 07 OCT 22

Since 1954, Aristotle Onassis’s superyacht Christina O has played host to everyone from Winston Churchill to Marylin Monroe. The vessel provides the stage for one more gathering of the rich and beautiful in Triangle of Sadness, winner of this year’s Palme d’Or in Cannes, and the latest skewering of wealth and class divides from Swedish filmmaker Ruben Östlund following his art world satire The Square (2017). Triangle follows a male model and his influencer girlfriend as they join a cruise on a billionaire’s yacht, meeting an oligarch and his wife, an arms dealer, and the ship’s drunk captain, played by Woody Harrelson. Under Östlund’s satirical gaze, the ship’s decks become the stuff of social allegory: a glistening indictment of a world in the throes of late capitalism that gives way to Boschian, scatological mayhem.


‘The Christina is interesting because of its history and the Western elite who spent time there.’ Östlund explained to me on a late summer’s evening at Sarajevo Film Festival this year. Noting Onassis’s taste for phallic barstool upholstery, he continued: ‘Yes, foreskin from a whale penis, that’s why we used it. It was fun for the symbolic value, because we were blowing [that legacy] up.’ The Square was hardly the first film to poke fun at the art world’s idiosyncrasies but it’s amongst the sharpest, and Triangle, another fish-in-a-barrel satire, only further confirms the director’s ruthless aim.

Ruben Östlund, Triangle of Sadness, 2022, film still. Courtesy: © Plattform Produktion; Photograph: Fredrik Wenzel

Since Force Majeure (2014), a wonderfully taut film about a father’s scrambling attempts to save face after abandoning his wife and children to a surging yet ultimately harmless avalanche, Östlund has become cinema’s artist in residence for withering looks at masculinity and one-percenter anxieties. Born in Styrsö in 1975 and raised in a left-wing family, his career began inauspiciously with a string of ski films in the early ’90s; they proved enough to get him a job in a production studio and later into Gothenburg University. Östlund’s early features – including The Guitar Mongoloid (2004), Involuntary (2008) and Play (2011) – hinted toward his fondness for sociological conundrums but were relatively austere in form; it wasn’t until after Majeure’s success that he found a taste for spectacle: ‘One of the goals of Force Majeure was to do the most spectacular avalanche scene in film history. Sometimes I think European arthouse cinema is posing – like, we are dealing with an important topic, so we have to use long, slow takes. I wanted to break free from these formal chains.’

Ruben Östlund, Force Majeure, 2014, film still. Courtesy: © Magnolia Pictures

Depending on how you slice it (and Östlund’s brazen style is not without its detractors) that decision has paid off. Triangle’s win in Cannes was his second in a row, a feat only two other directors in history have managed: ‘I wanted to be wilder. I wanted it to be like American cinema but with the approach of European cinema that discusses our society,’ he explained. Triangle’s approach to those discussions gave Cannes one of its most memorable scenes in years, a sea of gasps and real laughs alongside the usual perfunctory walkouts: for the film’s centrepiece, the oligarch and captain trade quotes from Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, Karl Marx and Slavoj Žižek over the ship’s intercom as passengers begin to feel the combined effects of dodgy shellfish and a surging storm. ‘I had a quote from Žižek, “See you in hell or in communism.” I wanted it to be the last thing the captain screams before the toilets explode.’ According to Östlund, it was this plot point that got Harrelson on board: ‘When I approached Woody I said, “you’re a Marxist captain that’s going to read from the communist manifesto to the throwing-up and shitting passengers of a luxury yacht.” He said, “let’s do it.”’

Ruben Östlund, Triangle of Sadness, 2022, film still. Courtesy: © Plattform Produktion; Photograph: Fredrik Wenzel

It's a sequence to rival even Majeure’s avalanche or the nerve-shredding dinner scene in The Square. And similar to The Square’s stolen wallet, Triangle begins with another of Östlund’s signature catalysts: a couple arguing over the bill. The sequence was inspired by Östlund’s experience with his partner, the fashion photographer Sina Görtz (other scenes, including the hilarious prologue at Milan Fashion Week, were also gleamed from her professional experiences.) ‘All of my films,’ Östlund once told an interviewer from the Guardian, ‘are about people trying to avoid losing face’.

Ruben Östlund, The Square, 2017, film still. Courtesy: Magnolia Pictures

When I asked him about this, the director skewed philosophical. ‘Maybe it’s not so strange, seeing as we’re herd animals, but we’re very afraid of not being accepted by the group.’ He recounted an anecdote he once heard from a journalist, in which the man went swimming in a pair of shorts that he deemed unflattering. Hit by a huge wave, he started to panic, thinking he was losing control. For a moment he wondered whether he should scream for help, but he visualized himself being dragged up on the beach in these ugly swimming pants. ‘[He asked himself,] “Should I actually choose to die?”’ Östlund recounted with a booming laugh. ‘If they’re true, the more trivial situations become, the more interesting they are to me.’

Ruben Östlund’s Triangle of Sadness has its UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival on 11 October 2022

Rory O'Connor is a writer based in Berlin, Germany.