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BFI London Film Festival 2022, Dispatch #3: Triangle of Sadness / Summer with Hope / Winter Boy

Triangle of Sadness, Ruben Ostlund, Charlbi Dean, Dolly de Leon, Vicki Berlin
Charlbi Dean, Dolly de Leon and Vicki Berlin in Triangle of Sadness

Snobbery, at its ideological apex, manifests as philistinism - in the end, no individual artistic specimen can live up to your ever-loftier demands. There was a time when this kind of ideology was actively embraced by the cultural elites, but its fundamental unsustainability forced them to bastardize all they'd ever stood for. If the modern cultural landscape is, as a result of this shift, a more diverse, varied one, it's also fronted by crude attempts by said elites at playing all parts of the landscape simultaneously - faux-ironic, wannabe-satiric "commentary" pieces on their own noxious hypocrisy. Ruben Ostlund understands something many better-meaning artists today fail to grasp - that humour, whether punching up, down, or square in its own face, usually only works when the punches hurt - but he's leading an audience comprised of the very types he's supposed to be hurting, and he's orchestrating their laughs, not their winces. And he's front row of the audience himself.

Shame, because he remains a filmmaker of some considerable skill, something he proves here like never before. Triangle of Sadness is comfortably his most ambitious work to date, a location-spanning, two-and-a-half-hour-skirting ensemble piece with elaborate effects, multiple languages, and a lot to say, though no real idea how to say any of it. There are excellent performances, memorable images, and a central sequence of prolonged, internal disaster (of more than one manner) aboard a luxury yacht that's truly thrilling and sincerely hilarious. Like other Ostlund features, the movie is pretty much built around this single event, but here the event is substantially longer, and the movie is built around it substantially less. But it's no less shallow than those other features; in fact, in its struggle to elude shallowness in spite of its cheap snipes at modern culture, it may be his shallowest movie yet. The opening scene, set at a model casting, exposes Ostlund's constitutional incapacity to grasp the nature nor purpose of art. If the audience of overwhelmingly white, overwhelmingly middle-class, overwhelmingly 40+ press and industry types I saw the movie with is anything to go by, snobbery is anything but on the decline. Give the philistines something - anything - to chew on, and they'll gobble up the whole thing, no questions asked.

Summer with Hope, Sadaf Foroughi, Benyamin Peyrovani, Mahdi Gorbani
Benyamin Peyrovani and Mahdi Gorbani in Summer with Hope

Triangle of Sadness ends on a note of forced irresolution, leaving audiences unsure as to exactly what has transpired in, around and after its final moments. Sadaf Foroughi's startling, confident Summer with Hope holds a similarly edgy countenance throughout, a sense that something, possibly something different with each new shot or each new utterance, is being withheld from us. Foroughi isn't concerned with illumination but with expression - note the prominence of a visual consultant / colorist in the end credits. She's manipulating her story to achieve an unsettling effect, unsettling largely in its refusal to ever reveal exactly what's being withheld. You absorb information, the characters plausibly preoccupied with the minutiae of daily life, and try to parse out what each creative choice might signify, but always without the kind of contextual abundance that might make such a process fruitful.

It's coy, and maybe too coy - just as I remain unclear as to the specifics of Foroughi's designs, I'm unclear as to why she's rendered them so inscrutable. But the story has innate interest, and her telling of it has potency, the overall lack of clarity all the more alluring for the relative clarity with which she depicts everything that does occur before her cameras. Primarily, this is a remarkably assured accomplishment from such a young filmmaker, possessed of a kind of conceptual daring even many experienced experimental filmmakers might shy away from, and on this basis alone Summer with Hope is a very rewarding movie.

Winter Boy, Christophe Honore
Winter Boy

I try to avoid sexed-up coming-of-age movies about cute white gays, particularly French ones - they have twice the heartbreak and thrice the sex the others do, and somehow even the unattractive people in them are attractive. They have a potently nostalgic power over me, tinged with the regret of never having wielded my own cute white gay appeal to half its potential while I still had it. Winter Boy ought to fill my quota of the above for the next 50 years, then, since it ticks every box so hard it rips the paper. That ought not to have mattered, however, since the (un)desired effect is only achieved if I actually enjoy the movie, and I normally loathe movies about wistful adolescents, and these aren't just any wistful adolescents, these are queer French wistful adolescents. And so it was against everything I wanted but for everything I needed that Winter Boy grew on me, and quickly. It's a rare semi-autobiographical work that succeeds in making its own little concerns seem large, because its concerns are genuinely universal in the way that only the most specific concerns can be, and because Honore is fully committed to relating the full significance of the impact they've had on him. It's a most sincere movie, so much so it's frequently uncomfortable in its honesty.

There's a lot to love here - it doesn't have the outward appearance of a particularly singular piece of cinema, but the choices Honore makes aren't exactly commonplace, even among his contemporaries. The predominant palette, for example, hovers around a dusty, fleshy, electric puce, all rosey and mauvey, somewhere between pale white skin and wintry-red lips. He doesn't cut around sex but cuts into it, and uses it for profound purpose - two teens, whose relationship we know to be fairly casual, suddenly awash in bright blue, midway through the kind of deeply erotic sex that seems to say these kids really know how to make things matter. They're not just any kids, no, they're queer French kids. Later, a specific composition tipped my thoughts toward James Bidgood, and I know so little about photography that to detect a reference such as that - and Bidgood's no mainstream photographer, even now - makes me feel like quite the educated aesthete. Gee, maybe I'm the snobby one after all.


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