Ruben Östlund on his class satire Triangle of Sadness and why he wanted to look at 'beauty as a currency'

Few filmmakers can eviscerate social norms like Ruben Östlund. In his latest Palme d’Or-winning film, Triangle of Sadness, he brings his sharpest tool yet for the job. The Swedish director sat down with Q’s Tom Power at TIFF to discuss the film, his fascination with social hierarchies and the economic value of beauty.

The two-time Palme d'Or-winning director sat down for an interview with Q’s Tom Power at TIFF

Triangle of Sadness director Ruben Östlund sat down with Q’s Tom Power at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival. (CBC)

Warning: This interview contains spoilers for the film Triangle of Sadness. Click the play button above to listen to director Ruben Östlund's full conversation with Tom Power.

Ruben Östlund's latest Palme d'Or-winning film, Triangle of Sadness, is an uninhibited satire about social hierarchies, the human condition and the economic value of beauty.

The film follows a fashion model celebrity couple, Yaya (Charlbi Dean) and Carl (Harris Dickinson), who are invited on a doomed luxury cruise filled with the ultra-wealthy and the ship's crew who serve them. The power structure flips after the ship sinks, leaving the survivors stranded on a deserted island.

WATCH | Ruben Östlund's full interview with Tom Power:

Split into three acts, Triangle of Sadness looks at what happens when a person at the very bottom of the social hierarchy suddenly shoots to the top. Östlund said he also wanted to explore the idea of "beauty as a currency," which he became interested in after meeting his wife Andrea, a fashion photographer.

"I thought it was interesting that [beauty is] one of the few things that can make you climb in class society, except for money and education," the Swedish director said in an interview with Q's Tom Power at this year's Toronto International Film Festival.

"I wanted to take a look on this beauty as a currency in the fashion world and … then go to a luxury yacht. And then we end up on a deserted island. So it's basically like three different chess boards that I'm, like, playing around with the characters."

WATCH | Official trailer for Triangle of Sadness:

With Triangle of Sadness, Östlund told Power he set out to create "a wild, entertaining roller coaster for adults." And like his previous films Force Majeure and The Square, he uses attractive environments to stage narrative turning points.

"I love turning points in a movie when you can … turn upside down on a structure or create a new kind of setup," he said. "In this film, I actually wanted to take three attractive environments: the fashion world, the luxury yacht and the deserted island. So I knew already from the beginning that I didn't only want to have one of them, I wanted to have extra, extra, extra."

While Östlund doesn't consider himself among the ultra-rich elite whom he skewers in his film, he recognizes that he does belong to the rich percentage of the world. "I always try to corner myself when I do my films," he told Power. "I'm interested in criticizing the group that I'm connected to."

The director said his fascination with class dynamics came from his upbringing with a mother who is still "one of the few that actually considers herself a communist." In his home growing up, his left-wing mother and right-wing liberal older brother would often have political discussions.

"I think that what I was, like, reacting [to] when I was thinking about my mother's political standpoint was that I felt that the left-wing had such a problem of understanding the qualities of capitalism," he said. "I mean, capitalism has made us live longer … and all of us are basically getting richer. Then we have other problems with capitalism. So there's a way of combining the two ideologies [of socialism and capitalism] in order to create a great society."

For Östlund, it was important that Triangle of Sadness didn't make the simple distinction that "rich people are egoistic and superficial and poor people are nice and genuine." He said he's more interested in making films that deal with "the hard situations of being human beings."

"The problem is, no, you can meet nice individuals in whatever class you are approaching," he said. "So for me, I don't consider any of the characters in the film as mean. I always want to try to be able to identify with the actions. And just like in sociology, you can create the setup of a situation when we fail, when we fail to be good human beings. And those situations interest me much more than when we [succeed]."

Ruben Östlund and Charlbi Dean at the 75th annual Cannes Film Festival on May 22, 2022 in Cannes, France. (Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images)

On Aug. 29, before Triangle of Sadness screened at the Toronto International Film Festival, the film's female lead tragically died from a sudden unexpected illness at just 32 years old.

"That she passed away came like a shock for everybody, she was supposed to be with us now here in Toronto," said Östlund.

"I hope that the film can be a way of, like, paying tribute to her work, to her legacy. I mean, I think also Triangle of Sadness was maybe a new path for her that she just wanted to start going on. And she was very happy to be a part of the project…. So I'm trying to bring as much attention as possible to her performance, and also, in order to do something nice for her family."

Triangle of Sadness hits theatres across Canada on Oct. 21 and is out now in Toronto.

Written by Vivian Rashotte. Interview produced by Mitch Pollock.