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Triangle of Sadness, 2022 (Film Still)Courtesy Fredrik Wenzel and Plattform Produktion

Ruben Östlund’s Triangle of Sadness is so funny, it’ll make you puke

The acclaimed Swedish director talks us through his new gross-out satire, Triangle of Sadness: ‘When the audience walk into a Ruben Östlund movie, I want them to feel like they’re going to experience a ride’

Every September, during film festival season, the industry’s decision-makers take long-haul flights from Venice to Toronto. According to Ruben Östlund, if you walk down the aisles, you will notice they watch Adam Sandler comedies, not austere arthouse dramas. “Adam Sandler is great,” Östlund says. “But I want to combine the European tradition of moviemaking that discusses society, with the part of American cinema that brings in an audience. I think: what would I click if I’m on an aeroplane?”

Östlund, 48, started out with Swedish-language movies too uncommercial to make the inflight options. Involuntary, though hilarious, is so slow it’s hard to know when to laugh; Play, a social satire about Black kids robbing white liberals too scared to protest, would launch a million think pieces if released today. That changed with Force majeure, a relationship drama so universal it spawned a Hollywood remake starring Will Ferrell. Then in 2017 and 2022, Östlund won the Palme d’Or twice in a row with The Square and Triangle of Sadness.

Despite its Cannes success and scenes where Woody Harrelson literally reads Marx aloud, Triangle of Sadness boasts an Adam Sandler-ish appeal: it’s a gross-out comedy designed to provoke a crowded cinema. Act one introduces Yaya (Charlbi Dean) and Carl (Harris Dickinson), a pair of influencers who squabble, Larry David-style, over who pays the bill; act two unfolds on a luxury yacht where millionaires and models undergo seasickness and diarrhoea; act three strands the passengers on a desert island. “You can look at beauty as a currency,” says Östlund, whose wife is a fashion photographer. “Then you take away the hierarchies at the end.”

After The Square, A-listers were desperate to work with Östlund. In 2018, a journalist described waiting in a hallway while Östlund discussed Triangle of Sadness with Hugh Grant and Carey Mulligan. “The casting was not only looking for celebrities,” Östlund remembers. I’m speaking to him at Curzon’s offices the day after a raucous premiere at the London Film Festival where vomit bags were handed out. “Last night, I introduced [the cast] like a football team: ‘OK, the player from the Philippines… Dolly de Leon!’”

With sly, comedic verve, de Leon plays Abigail, a toilet cleaner who’s invisible during the yacht escapades but is the only desert islander who can hunt and cook creatures. Subsequently, Abigail takes charge, even turning Carl into her toyboy. On set, Östlund would do up to 70 takes of a scene; in between, he would hit a gong. “I love the gong,” de Leon says. “I adore the gong. I live for the gong. The whole time the sound’s dying down, I’m preparing.”

She adds, “Ruben would send me videos of how people fish with their bare hands. And he showed a photo of this dog who made a mess of the house and looked so sorry and pathetic.” She pauses. “I don’t remember why!”

Östlund regularly sends YouTube clips to his collaborators. For the film’s centrepiece – the yacht rocks so much, the one per cent spew 99 per cent of their stomach – he made his visual effects team watch a video of Danish people eating sour herring. “It’s a Swedish delicacy, but the Danes think we’re crazy,” Östlund says. “And they’re vomiting so much.”

The director continues, “The human species is trained to avoid vomiting. I was also interested in looking at other people vomiting. When you’re eating dinner and someone vomits in the room, how do you react? Do you continue eating? If you’re fine dining and someone vomits, the social contract is broken in such a strong way.”

Did Östlund want cinemagoers to respond like a football crowd? “I wanted to push it further than the audience expected. I imagined that at a certain point, they would say, ‘Stop it, I’ve had enough!’ And then I go even further.” Someone recently told the director they ran out mid-film to vomit. “When you’re cutting the movie, you get numb. But when I showed it to an audience, I realised: wow, people are reacting very strongly.”

“When you’re cutting the movie, you get numb. But when I showed it to an audience, I realised: wow, people are reacting very strongly” – Ruben Östlund

One test viewer happened to be the director of Funny Games. “I wanted Michael Haneke’s advice,” Östlund says. “He suggested that when we get to the island, the earlier we introduce Abigail, the better the film. And that was very helpful for me.”

In an ideal world, de Leon’s scene-stealing – no, film-stealing – turn as Abigail would launch her to instant stardom. However, de Leon is sceptical about Western movie offers. “As an Asian, and a South-East Asian at that, we’re not very well-represented in Hollywood,” the actor sighs. “I would really like to be wrong about that… It doesn’t necessarily have to be about ethnicity or race. It can just be a story about a human being.”

As for her defining roles, de Leon cites an episode of an anthology series, Folklore (“I’m not saying what I play – just watch it”); a dramatic feature, Verdict; and a TV comedy, The Kangks Show. Is she actually the Olivia Colman of the Philippines? “I hope Olivia Colman reads Dazed. I would love to work with her.”

Regarding the shoot, de Leon describes it as exhausting but harmonious (when I ask Östlund why the credits say Harrelson had a personal chef – to me, the kind of imbalance his films satirise – the director laughs it off as an actor requiring a special diet). However, tragedy struck in August when Charlbi Dean passed away suddenly at 32.  

Dean started modelling at 14 and helped Östlund shape the character. “Charlbi was really caring and a team player,” he says, visibly moved. “She brought a lot of energy to her colleagues, and gave 100 per cent in order to make them act the best way, even if the camera wasn’t facing her. It would’ve been fun to see where her career was going after this film, because it’s an extraordinary performance. The screenings are a way to pay tribute to her work in the film, and honour her family and what they’re going through now.”

Östlund’s next feature is The Entertainment System Is Down, a comedy about passengers stuck on a flight without distractions. On planes, is he resisting Adam Sandler films and staring into space for research? “Definitely,” he says, before launching into a Jerry Seinfeld-esque routine about the luggage check-in desk (“when they’re typing on the computer, what is happening?”), seemingly gauging my reaction. I note it doesn’t sound at all like, say, Play.

“When I was making Play, I was clinging onto a certain kind of arthouse genre,” Östlund says. “I didn’t feel free as a director. I let myself be inspired by Luis Buñuel and Lina Wertmüller. They were wild and entertaining, but at the same time thought-provoking. When the audience walk into a Ruben Östlund movie, I want them to feel like they’re going to experience a ride.”

And a year from now, when the inflight entertainment system, if not down, has Triangle of Sadness, passengers will choose to watch it? “Yes,” Östlund says. “But a plane is not the right place to watch it.”

Triangle of Sadness is out in UK cinemas on October 28