Unlike nearly all of the other guests on the luxury cruise at the center of Triangle of Sadness, models and influencers Carl (Harris Dickinson) and Yaya (Charlbi Dean) are not there because of their wealth— it’s because of their looks, and in Yaya’s case, her Instagram followers. Still, they fit perfectly into writer-director Ruben Östlund’s satirical dark comedy, which explores how beauty and sexuality can be used as currency just as much as currency itself.
When the yacht goes up in flames halfway through the film, Carl and Yaya get stranded on a desert island with a handful of other passengers and crew. It’s at that point that Triangle of Sadness, which earned three Oscar nominations—for best picture, best director, and best original screenplay—gets to turn that power dynamic on its head. Crew member Abigail (Dolly de Leon) becomes the leader of the stranded group, rationing the food and taking control of the only shelter, a lifeboat. “When the pyramid is turned upside down and we have Abigail on the top of the pyramid,” Östlund tells Vanity Fair, “I thought it was very interesting to look at the man that is using his beauty and his sexuality in order to get something that he wants.”
The sun is setting, and Carl has caught the eye of Abigail, who wants him to spend the night with her in the lifeboat, in exchange for extra food rations. Carl, with a bag of pretzels in hand, sneaks over to Yaya to ask her what to do.
“What are you going to do in the boat?” asks Yaya, inhaling the pretzels. “You’re a young, hot guy, what do you think she’s going to do with you?”
Östlund wanted to capture Carl’s uncomfortable dilemma. “He wants to eat something, he wants to sleep in the lifeboat, but at the same time, he doesn’t want his girlfriend to be angry at him,” says Östlund. “There are two or more options, but none of them are easy.”
At first, Carl insists he’ll return the pretzels and won’t stay with Abigail. But Yaya won’t give them back. He begs her to tell him what to do. “You need to tell me how to navigate this,” he says. For Östlund, he realized that Yaya, as a woman and a model, had probably experienced this power dynamic far more often than Carl. “I loved that they were becoming rational and discussing it. What are the limits [of what] you can do if he goes into the lifeboat?” he says.
Yaya advises him to entertain her: “You just have to stroke her ego. Just laugh at her jokes and smile. Make sure to set up boundaries,” she says, adding, “Nothing sexual!” But Carl points out that Abigail will probably be expecting something, so they agree on a massage—but only of her neck.
On the day of filming, Östlund says he advised his two actors to make sure the scene felt like they were dealing with a life-or-death situation.“You can see that Harris Dickinson really played that he’s stressed,” he says. “It was some kind of intensity that both him and Charlbi were playing out really well in that scene.”
He even upped the intensity by adding in the whistle sound (which Abigail is using from the lifeboat) “to create more stress in the situation and really show that Carl is pulled between Abigail in the lifeboat and where Yaya is sitting,” he says.