Swedish filmmaker Ruben Östlund rose to prominence with his scathing black comedies, earning him the Palme d’Or award twice in the space of just a few years, first with The Square five years ago, and then again this year with Triangle of Sadness. His cinematic signature mocks the detached arrogance of the upper-class and the fragility of the male ego. In his most recent movie Östlund raises the volume of his satire, pushing the ‘filth’ of opulence to its literal extreme with the wealthy guests of a luxury yacht slewing in their own vomit and excrements.
Beyond the all-too-familiar conversation around the abhorrence of affluence, the movie’s biting satire of patriarchal societal norms is deemed “ground-breaking”. The credit should be given to Carl (Harris Dickinson; pictured at the top, third left to right), who challenges his girlfriend’s compliance with gender-based roles, and Abigail, (Dolly De Leon; pictured at centre in the image below, and also at the bottom of this article) the Filipino toilet manager turned leader of oligarchs and socialites. But if we scratch the surface, you will find out that these characters conform to stereotypical social structures.
The film is divided into three acts: “Carl and Yaya”, “The Yacht” and “The Island”. The first act examines the picture-perfect couple, Carl and Yaya. We then follow them on board of a luxury yacht in act two, where they become acquainted with the other guests. The yacht is wrecked by pirates and, in act three, the story proceeds on a deserted island where the survivors are stranded.
The director derives an almost demonic delight in exposing and dissecting the fragility of his male characters. Carl’s zeitgeist politics cloak his susceptibility to socially constructed notions of masculine strength. He claims to want a relationship based on mutual respect while performing so-called masculine dominance.
In a lavish restaurant, Carl confronts Yaya about shunning the bill since she had agreed to pay for their meal. The fight escalates and, on their way back to the hotel, Carl says that he wants their relationship to transcend stereotypical gender-based roles. Horrified, Yaya leaves Carl in the taxi. “You have to fight,” says the taxi driver, “if you don’t fight, you’re gonna be her slave.” This questionable piece of advice reflects the tension that Carl is experiencing, where losing the argument becomes synonymous with weakness. He chases Yaya to the elevator and, after she shoves $50 down his shirt – a gesture he sees as deeply disrespectful – he begins to scream that he wants to be equal with her – words that contradict his aggressive tone and body language.
Gender roles down the toilet?
Another character who seems to subvert the conservative precepts of the patriarchy is Abigail. The Filipino toilet manager is introduced in the second act as a supporting character. Along with the rest of the crew, she forms a backdrop to the glamorous lives of the guests of the mega-yacht. As though the camera were only interested in those standing at the top of the social hierarchy, Abigail suddenly takes centre stage in the third act, when she names herself “captain”.
In the wilderness of an unknown island, the shipwreck victims are dependent on Abgail’s ability to catch fish and build fires, granting her authority over them. She emerges as the unlikely leader of an unwonted mix of people, comprising of a pirate (Jean-Christophe Folly), a chief stewardess (Vicki Berlin), a disabled German woman (Iris Berben), a tech boss (Henrik Dorsin), a Russian mogul (Zlatko Buric), Carl and Yaya.
Fierce and unapologetic, Abigail relishes in her newfound power over the same billionaires and models that she had served. Each night, she summons the handsome model Carl to a lifeboat that she has claimed as her private chambers and indulges in an affair with him. Their relationship flips the power dynamic of traditional gender-based roles. And it also subverts age, class and race: Abigail is a middle-aged, working-class Filipino woman. It is the first time that the Palme d’Or was awarded to a movie which depicts an older woman with a young, male concubine. This, as well as De Leon’s magnetic performance, earned Abigail the title of breakout character.
Although her resilience inspires awe, Abigail perpetuates the very power structures that kicked her down the social ladder. This is apparent in her sexual exploitation of a younger man. In homage to the countless tyrants whose faces adorn our history textbooks, Abigail uses sex to display her dominance. She objectifies Carl to assert her power over him and, by extension, the rest of the group. Does this reflect the corrupting touch of power or betray the presence of Östlund’s male gaze?
The fearless queen does not challenge the logic of capitalism. Under her wing, it remains intact. It has merely been capsized to suit her own interests. If you haven’t followed Östlund’s drift, it is summarised in an interview between De Leon and Entertainment Weekly. The actress reveals that her character arc “is a huge statement on what […] power can do to a person regardless of their status in life”.
An ending with a lot to be desired
This outcome is sorely lacking in imagination. According to the director’s limited perspective, all pursuits of power result in the same form of abuse. Having a middle-aged Filipino cleaner in a position of power over oligarchs and socialites is uncharted territory, yet she becomes a cut-out version of Trump. She does flip the power dynamics, yet she conforms to the established structure. In the likeness of the late president, Abigail clutches power and reaffirms her status by imposing her will over others. She grabs Carl by the dick, so to say.
Game of Thrones’ Daenerys Targaryen is a more compelling example of a queen whose reign is a tug-of-war between, on the one hand, her blood-thirst for revenge and, on the other, her resolve to end the cycle of abuse. By contrast, Uma Thurmon’s The Bride of Kill Bill (Quentin Tarantino, 2003) is a cannonball heading straight to those who killed her loved-ones. While these women are propelled by their personal experiences, Abigail is just driven by petty greed and a ravenous libido. She is not a real heroine. She is the figment of the imagination of a male director.