I am wildly out of sync with the consensus on the two highest profile movies making their way through arthouse theaters right now, which means it must be Awards Season again. Both Todd Field’s Tár and Ruben Östlund’s Triangle of Sadness emerged from the festival circuit with plenty of praise & accolades, but now that they’re hitting wider audiences, the Correct Opinion to have on both has drastically split: Tár is genius, and Triangle is vapid. I can only halfway agree. Whereas most media-smart people I follow online see an exquisite, perversely funny treatise on #cancelculture in Tár, I only see a slightly better tailored version of Aaron Sorkin’s self-satisfied political fantasies, now shot with all the elegant refinement of a Lexus car commercial. Meanwhile, Triangle of Sadness won this year’s Palme D’or, and it’s being received among people I generally trust as if it’s the European equivalent of Green Book. I can at least get behind the consensus that the surface-level things Triangle of Sadness has to say about the grotesqueness of the wealth class are blunt & unsubtle. I just also found it to be delightfully, cathartically cruel to its satirical targets to the point where subtlety & insight had nothing to do with its merits as a class-conscious comedy. Speaking as someone who prefers entertainment to nuance, there is no doubt in my mind that Triangle of Sadness is the better film of this unlikely pair, and it’s been jarring to see that conclusion so relentlessly contradicted by every take I’m stumbling across in the wild. I haven’t felt so out of touch with what cinema obsessives value since . . . almost exactly one year ago.
In the broadest terms, both Tár and Triangle are political provocations about how power quickly corrupts the marginalized. Two (soon-to-be three) time Oscar winner Cate Blanchett stars as the titular orchestral composer Lydia Tár, who has risen to the top of her field despite the macho gatekeepers above her, only to use, manipulate, and discard women lower on the ladder in the exact predatory ways men in her position have for eternity. The lesser-known character actor Dolly De Leon goes on a similar journey in Östlund’s film, when the luxury yacht she scrubs toilets on sinks into the ocean, leaving her worshipped as an abusive tyrant on the island where her privileged, unskilled employers depend on her blue-collar work ethic for food & shelter. Neither woman wastes much time abusing their positions of power to squeeze sex & adulation out of their underlings. In Tár, that abuse prompts provocative questions about the moral conflict between appreciating great works of art and appreciating the great pieces of shit who make them. In contrast, Triangle of Sadness asks no questions. It’s more a grotesque boardwalk caricature of the ultra-wealthy at their most obliviously evil, followed by a cosmic comeuppance of Titanic proportions. Depending on a minimum-wage toilet scrubber for daily survival is just one indignity among many as their luxury-yacht voyage is disastrously derailed. At one point, they’re made to roll around on the floor like pigs in their own puke & shit while a drunken Woody Harrelson reads Karl Marx quotes over the yacht’s loudspeaker. We were invited onboard that yacht to point and laugh, not to ponder the complex power dynamics of modern living. That may be the easier, cheaper route to take in this kind of Awards Season art film about wealth & prestige, but that also means it’s the quicker road to success.
These two films aren’t tethered by theme so much as they are by their dark, transgressive senses of humor. Lydia Tár’s monstrous behavior is the same as any macho anti-hero’s; once it is narratively condemned, the audience is invited to take delight in its moral transgression. When Tár crosses the good-taste boundaries of safe space, trigger warning, and identity politics rhetoric in her lecture to Zoomer students, the audience is supposed to find her offensive to a point . . . but then also take delight in her freedom to speak “the truth” (apolitical Gen-X nonsense) to “power” (idealistic Gen-Z children) without fear of being #cancelled (because that’s already inevitable). It’s an Aaron Sorkin political rant coated in a couple thin layers of moral-distancing armor. Outside the classroom, her elitist disgust with the uncultured “robots” of the world work much the same: both a stain on her personal morality and a transgressive thrill for an audience who partly agrees with her, against their better judgement. It’s basically French Exit for the most boring people alive (i.e., subscribers to The New Yorker, which is name-checked in the first few lines of dialogue). Triangle of Sadness has no such pretensions. It picks out an easy, agreeable political target, strips them of their finery, slathers them in shit, and isolates them as far as it can from their bank-account safety nets. Its humor is rooted in Jackass & John Waters-style scatology; its schadenfreude is worthy of a Femdom Island reality TV show; it’s a loud, braying joke told over one too many bottles of whisky. I just personally found that joke much funnier than the understated musings of Tár, which aims more for droll chuckles than full belly laughs.
I know that I’m in the wrong here. I’ve seen enough intelligent people roll their eyes—in exasperation at Östlund’s film and in ecstasy at Field’s—to know that I’m just too impatient & too uncultured to “get it.” I’ve been paying attention to The Discourse long enough to know when I’m out of my element. So, just go ahead and disregard anything I have to say about Film Twitter’s punching bags & pet favs until, let’s say, the evil-doll horror M3GAN hits theaters in January. Until then, I’ll be searching for the scraps of crass entertainment I can find in the arthouse darlings that eat up marquee space this time of year, which is probably why I’m overly grateful that Östlund was willing to meet me halfway.