Strident, derivative and dismayingly deficient in genuine laughs, Ruben Östlund’s new movie is a heavy-handed Euro-satire, without the subtlety and insight of his breakthrough movie Force Majeure, or the power of his comparable Palme-winning spectacle about the art world, The Square. This film, on the other hand, congratulates itself deafeningly on being against the cruelty of the global super-rich, against the trite culture of fashion, against the vapidity of social media influencers. It uses a howitzer to shoot drugged fish in a barrel, inserts flabby lite-surrealism where the comedy might otherwise go and the plot turns out to be a retread of JM Barrie’s stage-play The Admirable Crichton.
Everything of interest happens in the first ten minutes. A male model called Carl (Harris Dickinson) senses after a calamitous audition that his career is already on the rocks, all washed up. One of the art directors makes a mean comment about his “triangle of sadness”: the frowny zone just above his eyebrows. Later he has a furious row with his Instagram princess/model girlfriend Yaya (Charlbi Dean) because in her selfish Anna Delvey-esque way, she expects him to pick up the bill.
Perhaps to mollify him, Yaya takes Carl on a free luxury cruise she’s got courtesy of her millions of followers, and they duly make the acquaintance of all the dysfunctional, boorish and anomie-stricken super-rich on board, including a hateful elderly Brit couple with the Churchillian names of Winston and Clementine. There is a German woman who has suffered a stroke, cannot move unaided and can say nothing but the phrase “in der Wolken” – “in the clouds” – which towards the film’s end looks as if it might facilitate a nifty plot twist, but doesn’t. The captain (Woody Harrelson) is having a breakdown; the chief steward Paula (Vicky Berlin) is a tyrant, and everyone looks down on the toilet cleaner Abigail (Dolly De Leon). Could it be that all these capitalist enablers are heading for a Bermuda triangle of sadness in their ship of fools?
At first, Östlund shrewdly conveys the architectural strangeness of this floating city-state, and how the anxiety and unease of its inhabitants has been projected outwards into the physical form around them: the walls, the deck, the pool. But then we are stuck with some really broad and tired second-hand satire and cartoony stereotypes, borrowing a bit from Marco Ferreri’s La Grande Bouffe from 1973, or the horrible Mr Creosote in Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life, and of course the much-filmed The Admirable Crichton. This is another of those films which are intent on telling you what you already know, and not deploying much in the way of comedy or originality to do it.