The Structure of Sadness


0 • Patchwork

Volume 10, Issue 03
April 19, 2024

Europe’s most illustrious entrepreneur smashes the head of a wild donkey with a rock. With the initial strike he thinks the animal is defeated, but that would be too easy. A feat of this nature is only achievable with real work. So, here we are—thudding and braying, thudding and braying. The process is excruciating. The man’s accomplice whispers from a distance: “Hit it here,” pointing to a spot on the side of his own head. This incisive advice finally puts the braying to an end. With one final THUD, a stretched-out wife beater barely covering a beer belly is drenched in blood. A moment of silence followed by sudden and intense sobbing indicates that tonight’s meal is dead.

After a disaster, when resources are scarce, murdering a wild donkey with a rock is a great achievement, but it’s not much compared to an ability to catch a fish and build the fire to cook it. This is made evident by a middle-aged cleaning woman, who quickly declares herself captain upon arriving on this deserted island. In case you are wondering, I am reciting bits from the plot of the 2022 film Triangle of Sadness. After widespread food poisoning, a diabolic storm ignored by a drunken captain, and a deadly pirate attack, a luxury cruise ship hosting high-profile guests has exploded and sunk. A small group of survivors now fends for itself on the coast of a remote island.

Since the cleaning woman is the sole survivor with vital skills, she leverages her abilities to assert dominance over the group. At first, she was the underdog we were all rooting for, but her new powers got the best of her. Overtaken by her own corrupt fantasies, this antagonist quickly comes to represent a darker side of human nature: an inherent tendency to create hierarchies not just for survival, but also for personal gain. She exercises complete control by withholding food. She takes her own private bed inside a lifeboat and coerces the youngest male into an intimate relationship by feeding him pretzel sticks in exchange for affection.

When everything changes, do we simply swap out figures while preserving the same structure? Perhaps, in a dire scenario such as this, with limited resources, a quickly formed hierarchy seems like the best chance for survival. Yet this inversion of status also manifests in ways which are not immediately necessary for the group. Since the survivors’ cash, pearls, and Rolexes are worthless, formerly less precious objects take their place: pretzel sticks as money, an inflatable raft as a punitive zone, a lifeboat as an exclusive house.

Since watching the film, I find myself circling back to the lifeboat: a mere utilitarian object in one reality is a palace in another, the sole symbol of stability, the throne of the island’s new captain. By containing the only private space, the lifeboat facilitates tyranny by separating the one from the many, and by virtue of being fixed in the sand, it is able to maintain this significance. A fleeting glimpse through a 1 sq m hatch—the only connection between its rarefied interior and the outside world—renders the possibility of an alternate approach to society slim to none.

What might it take for things to go differently? I am reminded of a few satirical works (that I can quickly recall) on alternate societies: Utopia (1516) by Thomas More, Ecotopia (1975) by Ernest Callenbach, and Erewhon (1872) by Samuel Butler. Like in the film, each includes objects which serve to contradict or invert their ordinary meanings. Gold in Utopia, for instance, is used for pots, pans, and fetters. Its value is only a result of its utility—known for being malleable and ductile, rather than shiny and beautiful. Similarly, plastic in Ecotopia is known for its ecological properties. It is manufactured in a sustainable production cycle and decomposes into the landscape. Since material production in Ecotopia isn’t so much extractive as it is harmonious with the environment, life is governed on the basis of morality rather than scarcity. Yet in both of these examples, the potential for counter-meaning relies on the establishment of a counter-framework. Utopia’s gold is used differently because its humanist commonwealth greatly values practical over symbolic value. Ecotopia’s regenerative plastic architecture exists only because of an imposed stable-state relationship between its citizens and an idealized nature.

In the nineteenth century, Butler dedicated a significant portion of Erewhon to the idea that machines have agency and will evolve, like organisms, to gain consciousness, ultimately becoming more powerful than their human creators. The society in Erewhon predicts a disadvantageous inversion of power and actively modifies its structure to prevent it: technological development is banned. In Triangle of Sadness, however, the dominant structure is fixed; it transcends the individuality of both characters and objects. The characters do switch their positions, and the objects do change their meanings, but each assumes a pre-existing role that only perpetuates the film’s pre-disaster framework as a bizarre mirror-image. In other words, although the appearance of the set changes drastically by the end of the film, the structure prevails.

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