“Triangle of Sadness” Ending Explained: Planned Cliffhanger

Ruben Östlund points to his own “triangle of sadness”.

(Evelyn Freja / For the times)

Spoiler alert: The following interview discusses plot twists and details of “Triangle of Sadness,” including the ending.

When Swedish filmmaker Ruben Östlund won top prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival for ‘Triangle of Sadness’, it put him in the rarefied class of two-time Palme d’Or winners. The prestigious group also includes Francis Ford Coppola, Michael Haneke, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, Emir Kusturica, Shohei Imamura, Bille August, Alf Sjöberg and Ken Loach.

But none of these titans of international cinema has ever won for a film with an outrageously prolonged sequence of passengers aboard a luxury yacht who vomit and get dirty violently during a storm at sea. Östlund, 48, prides itself on shaking up the traditions of high-end art cinema, crafting biting social satire in its previous films, ‘Force Majeure’ and Palme d’Or award-winning ‘The Square’, with surgical precision. Together they compose an informal trilogy on privilege and contemporary male anxiety. But aside from being incisive examinations of modern life, his films are also great fun.

In ‘Triangle of Sadness’ – the title refers to the area above the nose and between the eyebrows, often fixed with Botox – a male model Carl (Harris Dickinson), insecure about the financial success of his model/influencer girlfriend , Yaya (Charlbi Dean), accompanies him aboard a luxury yacht with a drunken Marxist captain (Woody Harrelson). When a violent storm causes all the guests to become seasick and the ship itself crashes, a group of survivors land on a seemingly deserted island. This is where Abigail (Dolly de Leon), a housekeeper on the ship, suddenly assumes an increasingly tyrannical position of leadership through her practical skills, like knowing how to start a fire.

After the film’s success at Cannes, an unexpected tragedy struck in August when South African-born Dean died aged 32 in New York from a sudden illness. Östlund addressed himself by paying tribute to Dean as he sat down for an interview at the recent Toronto International Film Festival in the kind of fancy hotel restaurant his films might very well be blamed for.

Charlbi Dean and Harris Dickinson in the movie "Triangle of sadness."

Charlbi Dean and Harris Dickinson in the movie “Triangle of Sadness”.

(Cannes Film Festival)

I can’t even imagine how difficult it must be to promote the movie after Charlbi Dean’s death. The timing of this must have been such a shock.

I was in contact with her a few days before, and all of us, all of us, had planned to go together to Toronto and to the various premieres. And basically I was woken up by a text… at first you didn’t think it was one hundred percent true, and it took many hours before I could confirm [it was]. Of course, the saddest thing is that Charlbi was an excellent colleague. She was a team player, she lifted everyone around her, and you could really feel that on set. She was looking forward to the premiere of the film in the United States or Canada. And we had a great time in Cannes. It felt like it was his time, and maybe a new direction for his career.

It’s always a tragedy when someone is young and dies, it happened very suddenly and it’s going to feel a bit empty when she’s not there next to us. For me, it is important to approach this work in the same way as I would have done if she had been next to me, because it is also a way for me to pay tribute to her, to her work and to his legacy. But I really think the casting people found it a bit hard to talk about the movie.

And to start talking about the film, can you discuss the structure? What made you want to have the three distinct sections of the film – opening with Carl and Yaya, moving to the yacht and then to the island?

I knew from the start that I wanted the film to be about beauty as currency. This came out of discussions I had with my wife, she’s a fashion photographer, and she told me so many interesting stories about how models often come from very different sections of society. All of a sudden they’re pushed into society, they get used to a certain lifestyle and take these trips everywhere. But the career is very, very short, so what to do next? Should they be auto mechanics again, like the inspiration for Carl’s character – this model worked as an auto mechanic, and all of a sudden he became one of the highest paid models in the world. There’s something absurd about that, relying on her beauty as a bargaining chip.

This was the starting point of the idea [and then the models] going on a luxury yacht, where a lot of these people might not have access to this world if it wasn’t for their currency. And then go to the third part of the desert island, where you remove all the previous hierarchies and you start from the bottom and the know-how becomes the most important.

I thought Desert Island was a great way to comment on our times, where very few of us actually have the basic skills to survive [and] are so used to a certain lifestyle. What happens when we remove this?

With the yacht sequence in particular, was it important that it wasn’t so easy to reduce the film to just “the rich are awful?” Did you want it to be more complicated?

Yes definitely. But I think one thing when it comes to my movies, I’m kinda mean to all the characters. I’m no nicer to the poor than to the rich, I’m pretty mean to everyone. And for me, I think the reason is that I’m interested in when we fail and when we fail to be good humans. I’m not so interested in when we succeed. I’m interested in failure as a sociology – we’re not pointing the finger at the individual, we’re actually pointing the finger at the context, the configuration that can create our behavior.

For me, it would be absolutely not interesting to show that a good person manages to be good. We already have all these stories that do that. I want to add something… and I want to pin down the characters. Maybe that’s better than saying be mean or tough. I want to corner them and put them in dilemmas: “You have two options, neither is easy. How do you handle that?”

Heard something interesting when I was researching the yachts. They had a problem with the jacuzzi they had in the master bedroom, because very often the man who was staying in the master bedroom wanted to fill the jacuzzi with champagne. So they filled it with champagne whenever asked, but that happened quite often. They had had enough when one of the passengers wanted to fill it with champagne and goldfish. They say, “Maybe we need to move the jacuzzi from the master bedroom.” I thought that was fantastic.

They look at it from a behaviorist point of view. It only creates bad things with these passengers. They are so used to asking for what they want. And we can’t say no, so maybe we should move the main jacuzzi.

Ruben Ostlund poses for a portrait in New York

Ruben Östlund is part of the select club of filmmakers to have won two Palmes d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. From the first time, he says, “Winning once was like, ‘Okay, wow, I’m one of the lucky ones who really got to experience this.'”

(Evelyn Freja / For the times)

I have to ask about the vomiting sequence, when everyone on the yacht becomes graphically ill. Obviously, the end of it is part of the point, but how did you decide on the right amount of too much?

From the beginning, I decided that I wanted to go very far, to make the audience say, “Please save them. They’ve had enough. It’s very hard to know how far you’ve pushed it because you get so used to the material yourself. So when I was sitting down and editing it, I said, “That’s nothing,” because I’ve watched it a hundred times. And then when we had the first screening of the film, I realized, “Oh s—, maybe I overdid it.” Maybe I should have been a little more careful. Maybe it should have been a little less. Maybe it was too much in the end. I apologized to the public. But it was too late to recut the film.

It’s about the dynamic of the whole movie, of course. I like pushing my scenes. There are so many movies that I watch where you have a great experience when you watch the movie, but after that I don’t really remember. For me, I really want to leave a mark. I want people to know, “Oh my God, this pushes further than I could have expected.” The first version of the movie was 3 hours and 45 minutes, basically with the same scenes, so the scenes were much, much longer. And then I slowly sculpt it…but the puking, it took me six months to edit.


Now, I hope you don’t mind talking a bit about the ending. The film ends with a cliffhanger, whether one character kills another, sending them back to civilization or not. What made you want to leave the public like you do?

I don’t think it matters whether she kills her or not. I think the important part is that we can identify with the possibility that she does? Then, whether she does or not, okay, it can be played randomly in two different ways. And I also think I had an idea that I wanted half the audience to want her to kill and half the audience to be like, “No, don’t.” So to me, it’s not interesting what she does, but it’s possible that she kills her.

The dilemma at the end seems like a great distillation of your cinema and the kind of moral questions you like to ask the audience.

Yes definitely. Every time I watch something I have to think about how I should relate to a situation, I’m interested in it. And then I also start asking questions. Basically, all my films try to confront me with situations that I find difficult to manage.

Director Ruben Ostlund and

Director Ruben Ostlund and ‘Triangle of Sadness’ co-star Dolly de Leon pose with the Palme d’Or during the 75th Cannes Film Festival.

(Stéphane Cardinale – Corbis/Corbis via Getty Images)

You are in very rare company today to have twice won the Palme d’Or at Cannes. How was the experience?

Winning once was like, “Okay, wow, I’m one of the lucky ones who got to experience this.” We all know how hard it is to make a movie good enough to compete, and when you’re competing, then battling with the best movies for an award. So I was very lucky.

The next time we’re sitting at the awards show and we see award after award go to other films – eventually there’s only one award left, and I started to feel this void because I started to understand that we were going to win the Palme d’Ou again. I’m starting to think to myself, “Do I really want to go through this again? It’s a lot of work, but at the same time, wow, am I now in the league with Coppola and Michael Haneke and the Dardennes and it’s so normal, but I thought it would be special? It’s scary as is normal.

And one thing with the second Palme – I want to be humble, but you know, it’s a possibility now to win a third Palme. No one has done this before. I don’t mean to be arrogant, but it’s actually a possibility.

A man

Ruben Ostlund.

(Evelyn Freja / For the times)

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