Issue #80: Epics and Expanse 🪱
Triangle of Sadness + All Quiet on The Western Front
Well, folks, we did it! We being Cate and Zosha, who have finished our march through the 10 Best Picture nominees of 2023. And you! Our beloved subscribers who has been following us studiously over the last few weeks (or making time to catch up before the big weekend)! This week’s issue offers writing on the final two outstanding films of the lot: First Cate on the eat-the-rich cinema of Triangle of Sadness. Then Zosha, on the aching horrors of All Quiet on the Western Front. So without further ado, here they are. And happy movie yelling!
Cate on Triangle of Sadness
Ruben Östlund’s English language debut Triangle of Sadness is not a movie one enjoys. Instead, one tolerates that… questionable art still has the right to exist. The film is not enjoyable or fun, so much as it is an abruptly truncated and overambitious eat-the-rich satire. Or so it thinks. Filled to the brim with insufferable characters, this black comedy is more “black” than “comedy.” Here, the rich are so detestable that it’s not even fun to watch them get a taste of their own medicine.
In the film, a model/influencer couple is gifted a free luxury cruise on a superyacht populated by the obscenely wealthy. These are the kind of people who have amassed so much capital that you don’t even know they exist because they’re too busy pulling at the strings of industry and shaping the world’s geopolitical future with their choices. They have the kind of money that would make even the ladies of The Gilded Age blush. One passenger, who made his fortune in the arms trade, casually discusses the business of war over dinner and laments the UN regulations on “personal exploding devices” that resulted in a 25% loss for his company. Another lecherous guest proudly declares that he “sells shit” and feels no particular shame about being a Russian oligarch.
When the yacht hits a storm during the Captain’s dinner, many of the guests become violently seasick, vomiting and shitting wherever they stand. As the storm rocks the boat, the sewerage floods, and excrement gushes through the hallways — taking guests and crew alike. And if that weren’t enough, a handful of people are stranded on a “deserted” island after the ship is attacked and sunk by pirates.
The film relishes its chance to mock and torment its clueless characters. And that in itself is not a problem. In fact, it’s almost the point. But Triangle of Sadness forgets the golden rule of the “rich people problems” genre — detestable as they may be, the audience still needs someone to root for. Even if they suck!
Think of the delightful torment of Succession or the full-throated lampooning of Knives Out and Glass Onion. Obnoxious as they may be, I’m still all in for Roman Roy and Birdie Jay. Not because they’re good or moral, but because they’re FUN. The number of Roman Roy gifs circulating is proof in itself that what we want is not to mock, eat or laugh at the rich, but to pity them. And Östlund provides no such opportunity.
Structurally, the film is also a little scattershot. Broken into three sections — Carl & Yaya, The Yacht, and The Island — each part feels like its own unconnected, bad short film. It’s reminiscent of the Romanian film Bad Luck Banging Or Loony Porn, but lacks its bite or cutting social commentary. What we get instead is an endless stream of not just rich entitlement on the part of the guests, but endless bootlicking from the ship’s white, visible crew members. The rest of the support staff — maids, cooks, handymen — are hidden away in the ship’s hull, tasked with serving and cleaning up after people who look through them.
The only vaguely enjoyable part of Triangle of Sadness occurs in its final section — The Island. When a mixed group of survivors, both guests and crew find themselves stranded, the group’s social order inverts. Cleaning lady Abigail (Dolly de Leon) assumes control as the “Captain” because she is the only one with any survival skills. No one else can fish or build a fire. De Leon is wonderful in the role, bringing an almost dismissive authority to the situation. On the ship, she is a maid. On the island, she’s the captain. And if the others want to eat, they’ll remember that.
Triangle of Sadness is the kind of film that’s made for a very specific audience. After all, it did win the Palme D’Or. Overall, it’s an odd choice for a Best Picture nomination, but as they say, there’s no accounting for taste. However, it oddly does make me curious to see more of Östlund’s work, if only to decide if the missteps here like with the film, or the director himself.
Zosha on All Quiet on the Western Front
There was a time during the deep, early pandemic, where my accessories became like ghosts. I was stuck in an apartment, unable to see the people I loved safely in real life, faced with the yawning day-in and day-out of quarantine life so many of us were, and like everyone else the idea of getting fully dressed became its own thing. My clothes are comfy, so I never really stopped getting dressed up — but jewelry? Well, I kept going on with that because it inspired something in me (and I like them too; I own nice things!), often directly connected to the people I got them from. My headstrong grandma’s earrings, the necklace my sisters and I all have, or the remaining stud from the pair my mom got me. In a certain light, these items carried the spirits of those who endowed me with them, and that was connection enough.
All Quiet on the Western Front starts with a similar principle captured in a different kind of misery: A young soldier, shot down in the line of duty has the uniform stripped from his body, sent to the cleaners, then to a warehouse where seamstress patches up the bullet hole, before it gets sent along to the next recruit. That recruit is our hero, 17-year-old Paul (Felix Kammerer), who’s so excited to enlist for the German army in World War I he forged his dad’s signature. The uniform when it arrives is schlubby, a muted, green that’s still grimier than the pristine blue-gray of the officer who hands it to him. But he’s proud to wear it all the same.
For those unfamiliar, All Quiet is not about the honor of his service. Instead, Paul and his friends will be put through hell, exposed to the harsh, anguished realities of war fast and quick. The movie is well aware of how objects carry weight: In their first day, Paul and his troop have to experiment with putting on their gas masks, and bail out the freezing trench with their helmets. Of course the metaphor extends further: they too are the objects of war, pawns in a game far larger than themselves; a drop in the endless bucket of death, or the flooded trench drowning their dreams of glory.
Netflix’s All Quiet on the Western Front remake (this 2023 movie is the second adaptation of a 1929 book, the first film coming a year later) underscores this by pulling back to Matthias Erzberger (Daniel Brühl) and his efforts to sign an armistice and end the war. It’s a change the story doesn’t need, an exercise in narrativization that makes the movie feel more hollow and trite than it ought to. The horror isn’t in the repeated juxtaposition of the good eats of the officers versus the stolen duck cooked over a meager fire by the soldiers. It’s the unassuming way the officer who hands Paul his uniform pulls the nametag from the jacket, assuring him it was probably just too small for the last lad; “it happens all the time” he says with a grimace, tossing the label on the floor with the rest of them.
At two-and-a-half hours, All Quiet doesn’t have the delicacy to carry its thoughts with the same subtle gradation as its color tinting. The latter is treated to highlight the blues of dying eyes and the muted lushness of green uniforms, finding a spectrum of war far more striking than most do. But with its changes to the story, All Quiet wants the story to be tragic in a very loud way, curdling the poignancy of the narrative itself.
While the original story wears its intentions on its sleeve it feels more subtle than most of what 2023’s All Quiet on the Western Front does as it tries to burden every single moment with meaning. It assumes gore as prestige and misery as a trumpet, and ends up kind of droning and stumbling over itself trying to outdo itself.
In its opening moments, All Quiet turns its rich gaze first on landscapes, idyllic and calm. We see trees and animals; it’s all cozy and quiet. Then: an aerial of a battlefield, men held in the same stillness, forever. They are part of nature (or, maybe, nature is part of war?), and serenity of death a rare and all too common mercy. Over and over, the film traces what becomes of the men after that: Their bodies to coffins in a mass grave. Their dog tags broken, so records can be taken hundreds of miles away. Clothes sanitized and fitted for the next one in their place. In its final moments (indeed its final shot) All Quiet underscores that some of these men — maybe even most of them — are war around them forever, getting the same sick ashy brown of the planks behind them and living out the promise of their recycled uniforms. Even when given with care, the spirit we give an object can only go so far. At its best, All Quiet on the Western Front remembers that those things can still be important because of what we bring to it, not because of what’s foisted upon us. But for too much of the film gets spent trying to force a connection to a larger world.
Assorted Internet Detritus
CATE: Rubbernecking the Vanderpump Rules drama, a table read infinitely better than the movie, Poker Face is great even when it’s not, how to fix the Oscars, on Nora Ephron’s Heartburn, more about how bad The Whale is, the New York Times is obsessed and it’s getting weird, and beautiful photos of Oscar nominee Bryan Tyree Henry just because.
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