November 30, 2022

Triangle of Sadness: To Have Done with the Carnival of Power

Pietro Bianchi

Abigail (Dolly de Leon) in Ruben Östlund, Triangle of Sadness (2022)

In The Boyars’ Plot, the second part of Sergei Eisenstein’s late masterpiece Ivan the Terrible (shot in 1944 just after the battle of Stalingrad and then censored by the Stalinist regime until the 20th Congress of the CPSU in 1958), there is a famous scene in which Tsar Ivan decides to momentarily abandon the insignia of his power and announces an unexpected carnivalesque reversal of roles: the slaves will be kings and the kings slaves. After he has learned that the Boyars—the noble class of Russian landowners, and in particular his aunt Efrosinia Staritskaya—are plotting to kill him, he decides to mockingly anticipate their plan. During a raucous alcohol-fueled court party, he appoints his idiotic cousin Vladimir (who is completely subjugated by his mother Efrosinia and uninterested in the role) as the new tsar.

In the only colorized reel, the film suddenly shifts register and becomes charged with an uncanny atmosphere of obscene enjoyment and libidinal excess. We see the Oprichniki (Ivan’s private army) abandoning themselves to wild dances and nonsense nursery rhyme–like songs. The musical number fuses Japanese theater and traditional Russian aesthetics into an unintelligible orgiastic mixture of styles and temporalities. According to Slavoj Žižek, in this sequence Eisenstein expresses the carnivalesque essence of Stalinist power, which marks a fundamental shift in the status of political violence: from a Leninist idea of violence as a necessary (albeit undesirable) means to achieve a political goal, we pass to the enjoyment of violence in and for itself.1 It is only when power becomes fully carnivalesque—i.e., when it is able to include its own transgression—that critique is ultimately neutralized. At the end of the sequence, the Boyars mistakenly kill cousin Vladimir disguised as the tsar, unwittingly putting Ivan into an even stronger position of power. If the first part of Ivan the Terrible was dedicated to the representation of power, the second focuses on the power of representation: albeit fake and absurd, such a carnivalesque upside-down exposes a kernel of truth in the guise of fiction. In fact, it is precisely because it takes the form of carnivalesque excess that power can tolerate telling the truth about its own obscene enjoyment of violence.

It is here, at the level of their carnivalesque form and not their explicit social commentary, that a number of recent films that have enjoyed almost unanimous praise from the left should be analyzed, and deconstructed. The first, Parasite, whose success in the American film market has no equal in recent history (it is the first non-English-language film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture), tells the story of a lumpen family who goes to live in the basement of the home of an upper-middle-class Seoul family. The film displays “geographically” the reversal between “the ones who live above” and “the ones who live below.” Another film, recently released in the US and Europe, and awarded the Palm d’Or at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival, is Triangle of Sadness by Ruben Östlund, a filmmaker provocateur like no other, whose comic register has always been characterized by ridiculing liberals and joking about cultural elites.

Already in Play, one of Östlund’s early films, his approach seemed to be entirely based on the provocative embarrassment of liberal spectators with anti-racist views. In The Square, which won the Palm d’Or in 2017, his target was a heavily caricaturized and snobbishly portrayed contemporary art world, seen as the quintessence of urban elites. But in Triangle of Sadness, his social criticism seems to take a step up and become even more explicit, at times having even quasi- (or pseudo-)Marxist undertones. But is it really enough to show a yacht full of multimillionaires who make money selling grenades or literally “selling shit” (e.g., fertilizer) being dethroned, ridiculed, and reduced to their basic biological needs (again, shit) to make effective social criticism and also to be funny? The basic idea of the film is as straightforward as it sounds, and it relies on the aesthetic of the carnivalesque, where the hierarchy between rich and poor is turned upside down and ridiculed.

The world is made of a purely fictitious social hierarchy, Östlund seems to tell us: the rich are rich only because there is a crew of waiters and assistants who zealously obey and respond to all their most absurd requests, and below there is an even more brutally exploited class of racialized, precarious blue-collar workers who barely even see the light of day (engine mechanics, janitors etc.). Where there is still a semblance of social conscience or just bare humanity among the millionaires (some of whom ask the crew to take a break from their work and relax for awhile), it only serves the purpose of dissimulating the brutal display of power. Even in the first act of the film, dedicated to a couple of young models, Carl (Harris Dickinson) and Yaya (the late Charlbi Dean)—definitely the most poignantly funny, and where Östlund shows a talent for comic timing and mise-en-scène—the whole gag is based on an overturning of social hierarchies between males and females. Modeling is one of the very few sectors of the job market—we are told in the film—where the gender pay gap works in reverse, and the male worker makes on average one-third of his female counterpart. (A similar reversal of expectations happens in Play, where a Black robber calls a white guy “an ape.”) But if power relations are preposterous, unreasonable, and ultimately contingent and arbitrary, is it really enough to turn everything upside down to change the social edifice? Are we sure that this is a politically effective form of social criticism?

The three acts of the film constitute three different steps in the unveiling of this underlying truth. In the first act, a seed of tension starts to appear because of the symbolic role of money in fabricating social relations. Carl and Yaya explicitly tell each other that their sentimental relationship rests purely on business grounds. Then, in the second act, the social pact governing society, which is based on a rigid hierarchy between those who live “above” and enjoy all the privileges, and others who live “below” and are forced to work to maintain this fiction, slowly starts to crumble. Why? Because the rich are so oblivious about how things work—and how their privilege is maintained—that they do not realize that in “generously” asking the entire crew of the cruise ship to quit working and take a swim break, the entire edifice that rests on the crew’s labor will collapse. Without their labor, everything goes to shit (literally). Abandoning their special dinner preparations, the food spoils, and so the passengers get food poisoning. Privilege cannot be shared because it is merely the other side of exploitation. It is here that the carnivalesque aesthetics starts to emerge more consistently, and the rich are shown to be driven in their lives not only by blind greed and stupidity but also by an erasure of their own bodies. And so, the social hierarchy collapses through the register of the grotesque and the abject: drowning not in the stormy ocean, but in a sea of vomit and shit. The ship is finally sunk by a pirate attack, a grenade landing in the arms of the arms-dealing elderly British couple, a gesture of just deserts.

A “new society” can only reemerge—in the third act—on a desert island where social hierarchies are turned upside down and the possibility of survival depends on those with know-how, i.e., the workers. Although this time it’s their turn to be on top of the pyramid. This may already be enough to critique the film: this desert-island utopia is still “capitalist, all too capitalist.” It’s the former toilet cleaner, Abigail (Dolly de Leon), who is now the self-proclaimed “captain,” and she, exactly like in capitalism, does not share the wealth equally but distributes it based on a new system of privileges, including sexual ones. Östlund mocks the “Russian capitalist” by making him quote the Marxian motto “from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs”—his way of trying to convince Abigail to give him some fish, since the capitalists have zero real survival skills. But paradoxically Östlund here makes the capitalist speak the truth, a proof that great maxims remain true regardless of who utters them. An emancipated society must change not only the order of the social pyramid, but also the very way through which wealth is produced and distributed. Why should a revolution be a “turning upside down” that leaves the structure intact, and not a more general redefinition of the principles governing society? What if the proletariat started to redistribute wealth equally, everyone receiving their “fair share” regardless of the fact that in the transition period, workers would have to take the burden of labor on their shoulders (as it has always been in history)? In fact, Östlund ends the film with a most classical “return to order.” After all, the carnival has always been the form of a return to order. Or a return of the same.

Yet Östlund’s well-known cynicism might not be his biggest problem. What he completely misses in this film is the political essence of his filmic form. The carnivalesque, as Eisenstein knew all too well, is the most refined and effective tool through which power is able to include its own transgression. It is where power presents itself as the greatest transgressor of them all, acting outside of the Law (making itself the direct emanation of a Law not based anymore on the word, but on the body of the Master). Eisenstein, with his last and brilliant film, had foreseen that the quintessential figure of power is not the gray administrator or the bureaucrat, but the obscene enjoying Father, who for pure fun can tell his idiotic cousin: “Now, you play the tsar! Decide whatever you want!” The new transgressive jouisseur masters of contemporary capitalism are more like Bobby Axelrod from the TV show Billions,2 or John Mackey of Whole Foods,3 or Elon Musk or Donald Trump: figures who explicitly present themselves as transgressive outsiders. Östlund, who in his films has always targeted liberals and urban elites, not only shares with them the same discourse, but also in a deeper way belongs to the same register and to the same imaginary. Perhaps a time will come when the political imaginary does not call for a return to order as a reaction to today’s Trump (or tomorrow’s DeSantis) but aims to disentangle the knot that links together power and jouissance, violence and enjoyment. So that between the traditional authoritarian Father and the obscene enjoying Father there will be room for something else, a Third thing which is still yet to come.


Slavoj Žižek, Organs without Bodies: On Deleuze and Consequences (Routledge, 2012).


I owe this point to Alison M. Walsh’s paper “Art and Prestige in the Billions Neoliberal Imaginary,” presented at the conference “Marxism and Neoliberalism Today,” University of Florida, April 8–9, 2022.


Nicole Aschoff, The New Prophets of Capital (Verso, 2015).


Pietro Bianchi is Assistant Professor of Film Studies and Critical Theory at the University of Florida. His first book, Jacques Lacan and Cinema: Imaginary, Gaze, Formalisation, was published by Routledge in 2017. He writes film criticism for Cineforum, FilmTv, Doppiozero, and DinamoPress.


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