The Quick Explanation
Triangle of Sadness is about economic systems and the roles people have within those systems. Whether it’s on a yacht, or in a sudden, makeshift community that’s not reliant on money as we know it. The overall thematics align Triangle with Parasite, Bong Joon-ho’s 2019 jaw-dropper. Even though the who, what, when, and where are incredibly different, the two films share a bitter and distinct why. Both Triangle of Sadness and Parasite express outrage and desire to raise the awareness of audiences. What economic system are you in? What privilege do you have? How do you overcome it? Or the lack thereof? Is it even something you can overcome?
- Carl – Harris Dickinson
- Yaya – Charlbi Dean
- Abigail – Dolly de Leon
- Captain Thomas Smith – Woody Harrelson
- Paul – Vicky Berlin
- Dimitry – Zlatko Burić
- Vera – Sunnyi Melles
- Therese – Iris Berben
- Jamo – Henrik Dorsin
- Nelson – Jean-Christopher Folly
- Writer, Director – Ruben Ōstlund
Why is it called Triangle of Sadness?
We hear the title defined in the opening scene. Carl’s at a casting call for a modeling opportunity. As he presents to the casting directors, showing them all of his modeling skills, one tells him to relax his “triangle of sadness”. They then explain it’s the point between the eyebrows, above the ridge of the nose, below the forehead.
An unrelaxed triangle of sadness means someone is tensing their face rather than feeling carefree. That can be as simple and neutral as they’re thinking about something with a degree of concentration. Or the sun’s in their eyes so they’re squinting. Or it might be a sign of feeling stressed and overwhelmed.
To understand this, remember that the movie begins and ends with Carl. And most of the time Carl’s worried about something. He’s pretty much a walking, breathing, talking triangle of sadness. Tense all the time, even on a luxury yacht with his model girlfriend. Situation after situation causes him to both literally and figuratively furrow his brow.
And Carl’s not alone. As more characters enter the picture, there’s an increasing sense that everyone on the yacht is caught in a larger, existential triangle of sadness. They’re wealthy but are they happy? Or are they all neurotic and crazy and inflicting stress on others because of it? That culminates with the captain’s dinner where everyone on the yacht has one of the worst nights of their lives. It’s beautiful because we’ve had a sense of the individual stress and pain some characters have. But the captain’s dinner unites everyone on the boat in a shared pain.
As so much of the thematic purpose of Triangle of Sadness is about economic systems that define societies, both macro and micro, I think it’s safe to say the movie’s making a statement that it’s not just the characters in the movie living in a “triangle of sadness” but all of us caught up in these economic systems that look to exploit and elevate few over the many. From this point of view, modern civilization is a triangle of sadness that’s putting stress on everyone. You. Me. Our families, friends, and loved ones. Our neighbors and coworkers. Everyone.
Lastly, the word “triangle” summons up thoughts of the Bermuda Triangle, especially when used in relation to anything involving a ship at sea. The Bermuda Triangle being a famous area where boats are said to mysteriously disappear. With our main character ending up shipwrecked on a random island, it feels like they’ve arrived in this Bermuda Triangle like place. I don’t have some big thematic revelation based on this. Just seemed like something worth pointing out in case anyone wants to think about it more.
The themes and meaning of Triangle of Sadness
First and foremost, Triangle of Sadness is about economic structures and the roles and power dynamics within those structures. Bong Joon-ho’s 2019 film, Parasite, explored a similar topic by focusing on just two families—the Kims and the Parks, one being lower-income and the other being wealthy. Joon-ho initially contrasts the families then slowly merges them through the Parks unwittingly employing each of the Kims. The son tutors. The father chauffeurs. The daughter pretends to be an art therapist. And the mother is a housekeeper. Each family is emblematic of their class level and the drama between them plays out as a much larger statement on wealth and life in the 21st century.
Triangle takes a different approach than Parasite. Rather than contrast two families from different financial situations, it drops Carl into a variety of environments, with each environment representing a unique, economic-based power structure. I’ll list the overall situation then explain in more detail.
List of situations:
- Casting call
- Fashion show
- Dinner with Yaya
- The Island
At the casting call, we see a group of models at the mercy of an interviewer. The interviewer has a camera, is credentialed, and feels free to playfully toy with models who are all eager to please since they’re in the process of a job interview. When the models enter the room for the formal audition, they’re at the total command of the casting directors. It’s intimidating. Being under the scrutiny of a room full of people who are judging your every physical characteristic. It doesn’t matter who Carl is. The casting directors don’t care about him as a person, they care about what he looks like. Ultimately, they reject him.
Which then leads to the fashion show. We see more power imbalances come into play when the people running the show kick some audience members from seats to make room for VIP guests. It doesn’t matter if the other people already had those seats; they pale in comparison to whoever has just arrived. So they’re moved. When another spot is needed, the people running the show have everyone move one seat to the right. Carl happened to be in the very last chair at the end of the row. He’s left without a place to sit. When he tells someone what happened, the person is dismissive, suggesting vague availability somewhere in the back then leaving Carl to figure it out on his own. Meanwhile, Yaya is a model in the show.
Thus we arrive at the dinner with Yaya. We’ve just had two scenarios where Carl was less than others. First it was the casting directors, then it was the other audience members at the fashion show. Now he’s out with his successful, model girlfriend. She was just in a high-profile show, while Carl got rejected from a job. So Triangle has already shown us the difference in power and success between Carl and Yaya. But it explores it further when the check arrives. The traditional gender stereotype is that the man pays for dinner. But we already have a feeling Carl doesn’t have a lot of money and Yaya does. So when he hesitates, it makes sense. Then it devolves into a huge fight. Yaya wants to indulge in the stereotype. It doesn’t matter that she makes more money. While Carl fights against falling into that role given the economic differences between him and Yaya. Later in the night, they finally agree to be in less of a romantic relationship and more of an affectionate business partnership. By redefining what they are, they redefine the roles, breaking through the previous stereotypes.
Money is at the heart of all three of those scenarios, whether it’s evident or not. The casting call is an opportunity for money. Seating at the fashion show comes down to someone’s net worth. And the dinner leads to conflict over who pays. Keep that in mind as we talk about the yacht.
The yacht is interesting because it’s a microcosm. What we saw in the first few scenes was Carl and Yaya in the wider world. But now they’re in the mini-world of the yacht. Everyone there is wealthy. Everyone there is a “guest” of vital importance to the crew. The crew wants to make sure everyone on board is happy, which is why we get the “we say yes” scene. There’s an important sequence there. Ōstlund shows the stewards and stewardesses and how cheery and bubbly they are. Then cuts to lower in the ship where we see other crew members in a far less jovial atmosphere. While the stewards/stewardesses are in bright colors and happy, the people below deck look more tired and beaten down. A similar dichotomy happens during the captain’s dinner. The beginning of the scene shows the serving staff and how prim, proper, and energetic they are. The end of the scenes shows the cleaning crew coming through and having to deal with all the vomit and spilled food.
So we have this power structure where it’s the guests, the public presenting crew, then the rest of the crew. Triangle then shows how these various entities interact with one another. How the guests treat the staff and crew. How the staff treats the guests and crew. How the crew treats the staff and guests. One great example is at the very beginning when Carl sees a crew member standing shirtless and smoking. Both he and Yaya are kind of blown away by the guy’s masculinity and carefree attitude. Carl, being jealous and insecure, goes to Paula, the head of staff, and complains about the guy. A few minutes later, Carl witnesses the guy being sent home, fired due to Carl’s complaint.
It’s a stunning moment because Carl went from having absolutely zero power in the previous situations to suddenly getting someone fired. It just shows how the yacht is a very different world. One guest is as important as another guest, regardless of their net worth. But the whole system gets thrown into disarray when a guest makes the absurd demand to have the entire crew swim in the ocean. The fallout of that demand leads to the cooks leaving food out, the food spoils, but it’s still served to the guests, and the guests all get furiously ill. Combine that with the captain shirking his responsibilities and selecting the captain’s dinner on a night of a storm, against Paula’s advisement, and we have the huge, climactic scene where all the guests are vomiting and defecating, the crew is hiding because the storm is throwing the ship to and fro, while Captain Thomas and Dimitry drink and debate over the intercom system. And the result is the complete collapse of the yacht’s microcosm.
The reason why the dialogue between Captain Thomas and Dimitry focuses so much on economics and governance is because Triangle of Sadness is exploring those very topics. Just in a more symbolic and metaphoric way via its three chapters (Carl and Yaya; The Yacht; The Island). When pirates attack the yacht and blow it up with a hand grenade, sinking it, it’s such an allegorical moment because the yacht really is money sitting out on the water. This object of wealth and indulgence. The pirates will probably never have the earnings to qualify to be a guest on the yacht. But they can intrude on that world and send it into the ocean’s lightless depths. It feels very symbolic for the kind of revolutions we’ve seen throughout human history. Where those with less rise up and overthrow the rich.
It should be pointed out that the one older couple, Winston and Clementine, were weapon dealers. Their fortune was made from manufacturing and selling weapons that others use in armed conflict. It’s blood money. And yet they seem so quaint and kind. They’re arguably monsters. And it’s a grenade they made that the pirates throw onto the yacht. It explodes in Clementine’s hands. I think that’s a nod to the cyclical nature of these things. Winston and Clementine represent the wealthy class who exploit others. While the pirates represent the masses who eventually seize control of the system and turn it against those in power.
You could probably argue that the yacht is metaphoric for current economic systems in modern first world countries. And that Ōstlund’s essentially speculating that the yacht that is, say, America, won’t be able to sail forever. Eventually the right series of events will combine to leave the ship wide open for “pirates” to come in and sink the whole thing.
That brings us to the island. Now we’re even further from civilization. The yacht was already a degree removed from the opening scenes with Carl and Yaya. A pseudo world that was similar to the real world but with a unique enough hierarchy that someone like Carl found himself, albeit temporarily, with far more power than ever before. But on the island, it’s completely unanchored from civilization. It doesn’t matter who anyone is back in the real world. Their bank accounts don’t matter. All that matters is what they can offer that group on the beach in terms of survival.
Of the eight survivors, all but one are useless. Carl and Yaya can’t model their way to food. Dimitry runs a company. Jarmo’s a coder. Therese is limited due to her stroke complications. Nelson is a mechanic (or pirate). And Paula’s staff management means absolutely nothing. Only Abigail, one of the ship’s cleaners, can build a fire, fish, and cook. She’s the only one with skills suited for survival. And we quickly see her redefine the hierarchy. Paula tries to still be in control, but Abigail puts everyone in their place, refusing to feed them unless they acknowledge her leadership. Abigail has established a matriarchy. She controls everything.
So that becomes the next economic microcosm. When the economy isn’t based on money but on practical abilities, the least likely person can be in charge. And not only does Abigail run everything, she takes Carl from Yaya. Yaya is a runway model. This person valued for her beauty. Abigail is not. She’s in her early 50s, almost 30 years older than Carl. But she takes Carl as her lover and has him to the point where he’s ready to break up with Yaya for Abigail. It’s a relationship that would never happen in the real world. But it’s possibly on the island because of the entirely different economic system and the resulting power structure. Carl’s only value in this matriarchy is his beauty. And so he ends up getting far better treatment than Yaya, a complete reversal of the beginning of the film. Yaya’s the one benefitting from Carl’s newfound “wealth” in the form of pretzel packets.
Notice that Carl starts the movie wanting to not be in traditional gender roles with Yaya. He doesn’t want to have to be the stereotypical man. On the island, he isn’t. On the island, the gender roles have reversed. Instead of a male leader, it’s a female leader. And instead of a female consort, it’s the male consort. He’s become more of a traditional feminine figure than a male one.
It shows how someone’s role in a society can change depending on the power structure of that society (based on the economy of that society).
I’m sure there are other themes worth discussing. But this is absolutely the primary one. If there are other thematic elements you want to talk about, leave a comment and we can talk about it. Otherwise, let’s get to the ending.
The end of Triangle of Sadness explained
Yaya and Abigail go for a hike. There’s massive tension between them as Abigail has used her power as matriarch to steal Carl from Yaya. Yaya’s jealousy has increased. So as the two hike up ridges and along treacherous, elevated trails where a fall could prove fatal, there’s a sense of danger in the air. You’re not sure if either of them is truly ready to commit such an act, but you get the sense that each of them suspects the other might do something so is wondering if they should do something. Their conversation is friendly but full of subtext.
Meanwhile, Therese sees a random merchant and calls out to him. This is shocking because the group had imagined themselves alone on some small, forgotten, uninhabited island. The merchant seems oblivious to all the details that suggest Therese is the victim of a shipwreck. Instead, he merely tries to sell her some wares. Unfortunately, she’s the only one in the group unable to explain the situation. All she can say is “In Den Wolken”, German for “in the clouds”. After she grabs at him, the guy says he has a wife and leaves.
Then Yaya and Abigail find the empty private beach of a resort. Except the resort isn’t on the beach. It’s above it, on some cliff. An elevator is all that separates them from a return to civilization. Yaya is eager to go. Abigail refrains, claiming to need a moment to use the bathroom. As Yaya waits, Abigail picks up a giant rock and slowly closes in, unbeknownst to the model who stares out at the water and fantasizes about being back in the real world. Yaya offers Abigail a job as Yaya’s assistant.
We then cut to Carl. He sprints through the jungle. Desperate. Without abandon. Whipped and cut by branches. We have no idea why he’s running, or where to. Then the movie ends.
What’s it mean?
We established that Triangle of Sadness is about economic structures and the power dynamics of those structures. And how we moved from the regular world in chapter 1 to the pseudo world of the yacht in chapter 2 to the make believe world of the island in chapter 3. To understand the ending, just keep that economic stuff in mind.
So for Therese, what stands out about the encounter? The island society was a matriarchy because Abigail had the survival skills no one else did. In fact, the one time someone else tried to hunt was Jarmo, and he struggled to defeat a donkey that couldn’t fight back. It’s played for laughs but it showed how inept the others were at this kind of thing. And was pretty sad, in more ways than one. But the society was unique in that money didn’t matter. Net worth didn’t matter. Being a guest didn’t matter. So when this merchant appears, it’s a sudden intrusion of the previous world.
The merchant is an entrepreneur, with wares, looking to exchange goods for money. The most basic of modern day economic interactions. He’s the embodiment of economics as a whole. While Therese is the complete opposite. She’s someone in dire need of aid. Her face is dirty. Her clothes are dirty. She’s sitting in an emergency raft and surrounded by rations and debris. It’s the kind of thing that should cause someone to stop what they’re doing and say, “What happened here? Do you need help?” But the merchant ignores all of that. He doesn’t see Therese as a fellow human. He sees her as a potential customer. So he focuses only on the sale. Who she is. What her situation is. None of that matters. All that matters is if she’ll buy. Of course, she has no money. And can’t speak. So he leaves her there. This is a reminder of how dehumanizing these capitalistic structures can be.
(Another way to look at it: Therese is part of a shipwrecked matriarchal society that has nothing to offer in terms of money. Even though she and the salesman are just two people, they represent two very different concepts. And their inability to communicate is tragic but also embodies the failure of different cultures and countries to engage with one another. There are fundamental differences in Country A that keep it and Country B at odds. There are fundamental differences between Religion X and Religion Y that keep them at odds. The earlier interactions between Dimitry and Captain Thomas had a similar dynamic. Those two even defined themselves by their economic beliefs before their drunken conversation led to a whole bunch of chaos.)
Yaya and Abigail
This is, once again, two worlds colliding. Abigail likes the island society because she has all the power. When she’s presented with the opportunity to leave the island, she refuses. She’d rather kill Yaya than give up her kingdom. Meanwhile, Yaya’s already daydreaming about a return to her former place of prestige. Because she relaxes, because she forgets where she is, she leaves herself open to Abigail’s attack.
What’s weird about the moment is that it doesn’t let Yaya be a completely innocent victim. The reason why she’s relaxed is because being at the resort reverts Yaya to a previous state. She’s no longer an island survivor, politicking with the matriarch. She’s a young, pretty model, who people and brands cater to and covet. She’s already dismissed Abigail as a leader, much less a threat. To her, Abigail’s back to being a housekeeper on a yacht. Someone who serves. Just a few minutes before, Yaya was praising Abigail for creating a matriarchy. Now, she offers Abigail a job as an assistant. It’s an incredibly demeaning thing that Yaya thinks is some grand kindness. I am 100% certain that Abigail uses the rock and slays Yaya.
This gets at the shifting dynamics of economic systems, and the things people will do to maintain their position. Abigail on the yacht would probably never hurt anyone. It’s not worth it. But when she’s the matriarch and someone could potentially ruin the whole thing and cause Abigail to go from leader back to grunt worker? No way. When people feel their power threatened, they will do wild things to hang onto it. History is full of examples of this very behavior. Heck, every single day you can find a news headline that’s emblematic of a politician or company or country doing something to keep power or seize power.
I think we’d all believe that if we were in Abigail’s situation, we’d do the right thing. But the scary thing is that we don’t know. And it’s probably equally concerning how many of us are like Yaya. Entitled. Privileged. Unaware of how we demean the people around us by casually embracing hierarchy. Instead of looking at them for who they are, you unthinkingly judge them by what they do for a living and pigeon hole them.
So there’s a really amazing tension because it’s like…Abigail is evil but also relatable. Her rage at the superiority of Yaya is something most of us understand. And Yaya isn’t just the victim. She’s both gross and relatable. We’ve spent the movie with her being mostly likable. And when she’s reminiscing at the end, there’s something innocent and hopeful about her. Even her offer, as outrageous as it is, wasn’t from a bad place. Yet, she’s the epitome of privilege. So you want to cheer on Abigail as representing the rising up of the working class. While also mourning Yaya as a person.
Oh, Carl. Poor Carl. So much happens throughout Triangle of Sadness that it’s easy to overlook Carl’s character arc. But when you step back and look at him, you see how much he’s used. As a model, fashion labels use his looks and body. Yaya uses him for clout and as a production assistant. No one on the yacht is really interested in him. And on the island, he contributes nothing other than being Abigail’s mistress.
Don’t get me wrong, Carl isn’t necessarily a great person. He’s defensive, jealous, temperamental, a thief, a liar, a cheater. It’s not like he’s the one redeemable person in a movie full of lost causes. But he’s weirdly the moral center of the film. And that’s because he’s the only character we meet who is always kind of at a loss. In the regular world, he’s in a relationship with someone who doesn’t love him and doesn’t really provide for him and takes from him. While also struggling to find work. On the yacht, even though he’s a guest, he’s the poorest one there. The only reason he’s there is because of Yaya. He has more in common with the crew than he does the other guests. And on the island, Abigail uses him for his body.
That’s kind of the thing: everyone uses Carl. Constantly. The entire movie. He has his moment of being powerful when he gets the shirtless crew member fired. But that’s the extent of it. And even when the shirtless crew member’s leaving, there’s such a dramatic contrast between that guy’s confidence, the way the other crew members send him off with hugs and genuine compassion, and Carl’s whole vibe. And that’s kind of the point. Carl isn’t confident. He isn’t carefree. He’s scared and stressed. That’s why the shirtless crew member bothered Carl so much. Because the guy exuded a sense of self-assurance that Carl completely lacks.
Before we see him running, he’s in Abigail’s makeshift palace, in bed with her. They’re fooling around but he’s stressed about still being in a relationship with Yaya. He and Abigail talk about making their relationship official. Carl talks about breaking up with Yaya. Then Yaya is there. It’s awkward as Yaya clearly knows what Abigail and Carl are doing. When the two women leave on their hike, Carl’s left all alone.
Now, I could see someone looking for a practical answer here. Like, Carl saw the merchant who talked to Therese, so he’s running off after Yaya and Abigail to let them know the good news. Or Carl heard Yaya scream (hit in the head with a rock) and is running to find her. But Triangle of Sadness isn’t a practical movie. It’s a thematic one, driven by the exploration of economic structures and people within those structures. So I think the answer has to reside there.
At the casting call, Carl’s dehumanized by the casting directors. At the fashion show, it’s the event staff. At dinner, it’s Yaya. On the yacht, he’s there not because he has the money to be but because the yacht’s using Yaya and him for promotion. And on the island, he’s incapable of making a meaningful contribution and emasculated by Abigail. Over and over again, Carl lacks power. He lacks authority.
He’s weirdly similar to the Captain. Vibe wise, they’re different. As Captain Thomas has confidence and has authority over others. Despite that, he’s still very much a prisoner of expectation. The yacht company, the crew, the guests, all expect him to behave in a certain way befitting a captain. But he spends most of the voyage refusing to do anything. He shows up to one dinner. Then gets hammered and becomes the voice of the ship’s existential crisis. As he rants and raves, a storm rages, the guests suffer from seasickness and food poisoning, the crew is overwhelmed, the ship itself backflows its sewer system. It’s madness in the midst of something that’s supposed to be organized.
What unites Captain Thomas and Carl is that both desire to flee the system.
And I think that’s something we can all relate to. Even if your life is stable right now. Even if it’s the best that it’s ever been. All of us can relate to the feeling of social pressure. Whether it’s pressure from your parents. Or the pressure to be great at school. Or have a high paying job in your 20s. Or be married by 30 and have a kid. Or maybe it’s just trying to pay rent each month. I remember a few years where I was legitimately afraid to buy something as simple as a bottle of water at a gas station because my budget was that thin. You’re stuck working a job you hate. Living in a place you hate. Surrounded by people you don’t want to be around. I know, I know, that’s a dramatic, extreme scenario. But I bet you can relate to it in some way. We’ve all had that urge to run away. To be free from the pressure that comes with being part of a society that’s demanding so much from us every single day.
Remember, Carl was the one tensing his “triangle of sadness” at the beginning of the movie. Early on, that moment doesn’t mean much. But by the end you can see how it embodies Carl’s entire existence. He’s stressed. He’s sad. He represents everyone who has felt overwhelmed. Everyone who feels the weight of the world on their shoulders. So even though Carl isn’t a hero in any sense of the word. When he decides to run, there’s something terrifying and exciting about it. Even if you don’t comprehend why he’s running, you get it. You maybe kind of envy it.
It’s a really bittersweet way to end the movie. Because ending mid-run kind of conveys a sense of hope. Maybe he’ll escape? Maybe he’ll find something better? Maybe his next chapter will be the best one? But we never see him get anywhere. Our last image of him is in the middle of the action. Ending like that makes his flight feel infinite. Like as the credits are rolling, he’s still running. The next day, when you think about the movie, Carl’s still running. A month later, a year later—still running. Whenever you think about Triangle of Sadness, Carl will still be running.
And that’s what the ending captures for me. That desperate sense to be free from these systems and pressures and the ways they exploit us. I feel like I can hear Ruben Ōstlund telling me to run while I can. But there really isn’t an out. We don’t have anywhere to go. We’re all trapped, brows furrowed, in our own personal triangle.