This is an exuberantly comic satire of the super-rich; a film directed by Ruben Östlund.
The scene is a luxury cruise ship. The cast is two-decker: the glamorous cruise guests and the fawning crew who serve them. The film starts with the routines of super-models and influencers, and the love-tiffs of a couple, he of the body beautiful (but with a ‘triangle of sadness’ on his furrowed brow) and she of sultry Latino looks, but with behaviour that perplexes him. This couple then get an offer of a free trip on the cruise ship because of their promotional networks.
Actually, I found the first part about this couple rather too long. I had come for the comic satire and briefly wondered if we had gone into the wrong auditorium. Also, the title did not seem to fit the expected comedy. I wonder how many others are giving this film a miss because the title is so misleading. Part one could have been shortened to five minutes.
The cruise ship
But when the film, after the first 30 minutes, started into Part two, with the scenes on the cruise ship, I saw why it had been awarded the golden palm. It opens with bossy blonde middle manager (BBMM) lecturing the service team on how to please the customers by always saying yes to their every whim. Then there is a series of little scenes focusing on the various characters. Apart from the influencer couple, the guests are elderly, past their prime, but with the overbearing confidence of those who can buy their way to anything they desire. They spend a lot of time photographing themselves.
The oligarch, the arms dealer, the woman on wheels and the lonely German
There is a Russian (RSS) who says he got rich by selling shit, a fertilizer magnate who appropriated the Soviet firm he used to manage. There is the posh po-faced British couple who have a “precision engineering” firm which sells its products to “help many democracies of the world” – with mines and detonators.
An attentive husband escorts a woman in a wheelchair (WW) with brain atrophy, whose only words “in dem Wolde” tick tock through the action. There is a German merchant (GM) who is on his own, lonely and trying to chat up the glamorous wives.
One woman is shown bathing on deck, with attendant deck servant. On a whim she decides she wants to see the attendant bathing instead of her. And then she manically commands that all the staff on the ship including crew must have a swim before the Captain’s dinner.
Meanwhile, BBMM is having trouble keeping the ship-show to schedule. She repeatedly knocks on the door of the captain’s cabin, but he declines to emerge from his drinking. The only thing he commands is that the Captain’s dinner should be on Thursday, in spite of a forecast for stormy weather then.
The action then jumps to that afternoon. The command goes into the kitchen, busy with elaborate food preparation, to join the swim-parade. And to the engine room where South Asian seamen toil in the heat. All have to line up and jump down the inflatable slide to the sea for spectator fun. One begins to fear the ship is getting out of control. There are glimpses of the bridge where red lights flash. The second officer declines to intervene, but just stands around looking correct in his white uniform.
It’s dinner time
Surprisingly, the captain (acted by Woody Harrelson) finally emerges in time for the dinner, looking immaculate in his white uniform, and greeting the guests in their bejewelled finery, as they come to be seated for the feast at tables beautifully laid out with crystal and silver. The bespoke food consists of the most fantastic concoctions of modern high-end restaurant fashion, little turrets of greenstuff plus protein in the centre of the plate, or a wobbling grey jelly with one red cherry.
The captain, however, just has a burger and chips on his plate. He expresses surprisingly Marxist opinions to the amusement of RSS, who really does know something about how do business in Soviet times. Their conversation gets lively.
The weather forecast was right
Meanwhile, the ship is rolling, and one by one the guests get sea-sick. The scenes are gloriously yucky. Vomit all over the fine dining, down the stairs, along the passage into the cabins. Only the Captain and RSS remain upright at the table, still swapping political opinions. They retire to the bridge where RSS gets hold of the tannoy and declares the ship is in danger. Most guests try to put on life-jackets, even as they roll and slither in the vomit.
The toilet system breaks and brown sewage gushes into the luxury cabins. The lights go out. BBMM aided by first captain fiddle with the fuse-box which cackles and explodes. The Captain and RSS are still at the bridge, but the Captain is absorbed with trading political quotations from his cell phone with RSS. Will the ship go down?
No, the storm seems to subside a bit. A disciplined line of Filipino staff is seen scrubbing the corridor and deck (while shit, of course, is still surging elsewhere). Then suddenly the pirates come, flinging an explosive: “Is that one of ours?” the posh wife asks, before she explodes with it.
Part three then opens on the beach of a tropical island. Only a few have reached the shore: BBMM (of course), RSS, GM, WW, the influencer couple, a Filipino toilet cleaner, and a Somali-looking Black man who says he worked in the engine room (but he looks like he may be one of the pirates).
The mode then switches from the visual extravaganza of Part two to more intimate psychodramas of the fight for survival. It soon becomes clear that only the Filipino Toilet Manager (FTM), acted by Dolly de Leon, can lead their survival through her ability to fish in the sea. The only other food they get is pretzels from the washed onshore lifeboat.
She uses this as currency to exert behavioural control. As she is now the alpha female, she can get what she wants, including spending nights in the lifeboat, loveboat, with the male model. This puts her in competition with the sultry influencer, the partner of the male model. Better not reveal how that ends.
Go and see it while it’s still in town!
I highly recommend this film as a surreal reflection of the extremes of materialism and inequality of modern society. We went to see it at the new Curzon Riverside in Canterbury which opened two months ago. It is worth a visit while the beautiful leather chairs in the café are still new and the staff still delighted to get custom at all on a mid-week afternoon.
I am impressed that the planners and investors are so confident of the cinema industry that such a site is still being opened for the Kent public. Much better to see such a superb film on the big screen than to wait for it to come on Netflix.