Back, Scoundrels: Eating the Rich on Film
By Pat CasselsMarch 7, 2023
But Potemkin was more than a landmark for the formal aspects of filmmaking. The events it depicted—working-class Russian sailors overthrowing their czarist officers—are among the first examples of class conflict on screen. Exactly 100 years after the USSR was formalized, Swedish writer-director Ruben Östlund (2014’s Force Majeure, 2017’s The Square) showed up to the Cannes Film Festival with Triangle of Sadness, his new dark comedy about the wealthy and the boats they love—only this time it’s a drunk Woody Harrelson quoting Karl Marx aboard a luxury yacht. Triangle of Sadness aims to skewer the sorts of people who might be passengers on his boat; the festival awarded it the Palme d’Or.
A century after Potemkin, portraying class conflict on screen seems less black-and-white, and not just because we’ve invented color photography. Despite Triangle of Sadness’s success in France (or perhaps because of it), the movie has been knocked by some critics for being too broad or reductive. “[T]he megawealthy who run the world in Triangle of Sadness are such broadly drawn grotesques that it’s easy to imagine an audience of yacht-owning billionaires chuckling along to their antics while feeling nary a twinge of recognition,” wrote Vulture’s Alison Wilmore. The New Yorker agreed, calling the film “a movie of targeted demagogy that pitches its facile political stances to the preconceptions of the art-house audience.” (How dare you, New Yorker. I come up with my own facile political stances, thank you very much.)
Such gut-level aversion is understandable; nothing is more irritating than a nonhistorian trying to talk about Marxism. (Me right now, for example.) But it comes from the misguided belief that Östlund is trying to impress the intelligentsia with his armchair economics. On the contrary, he’s poking fun at the very kind of “café-table insights” The New Yorker dismisses. In one key scene, Harrelson’s Bolshevik captain debates a wealthy oligarch who identifies as a “Russian capitalist” (Zlatko Buric). The pair trade insights from the likes of Marx (“The last capitalist we hang will be the one who sold us the rope”) and Margaret Thatcher (“The problem with socialism is that you eventually run out of other people’s money”). And the exchange indeed comes across as sanctimonious on the filmmaker’s part, until one notices the two men are googling every quote they say and reading them off their iPhones.
The deliberate emptiness of Harrelson’s phone-cribbed Marxism shows that Triangle has as little regard for socialism as it does capitalism. When one of the passengers attempts to be altruistic, they have the epically dumb idea of switching roles with the crew—making the servers and cleaners go for a swim—and it’s presented as a burden 10 times more humiliating for the workers than any request for clean linens. And the movie’s shipwreck story argues that any society, even a classless island utopia where material wealth is meaningless, will still inevitably devolve into a system where those with something to offer (pretzel sticks, sex) are granted an elevated status, leading to chaos. Through this lens, Triangle of Sadness isn’t Marxist or Maoist or capitalist: it’s nihilistic.
But the debate over how smart Östlund’s movie is or isn’t obscures a far more immediate point about criticism of capitalism on film: just how much of it we’re getting. In December, Triangle of Sadness shared theaters with two other high-profile movies couched in class: Mark Mylod’s The Menu, a macabre thriller starring Ralph Fiennes and Anya Taylor-Joy, and Rian Johnson’s Glass Onion, the follow-up to his hit 2019 mystery Knives Out.
Why did Hollywood choose to release so many stories of class conflict in 2022? Or is this simply a cinematic version of vulgar Marxism at work? Were the movies in 2022 reflecting the real-world preoccupation with wealth and social stratification? After all, giving the masses (or at least a mass audience) what they want is what Hollywood likes to think it does best. It’s the reason sequels, reboots, and cinematic universes are keeping theaters afloat. Even last spring’s Top Gun: Maverick satisfied society’s fundamental need for speed.
Class conflict is certainly a complicated enough subject to demand different movies. The Menu is a horror film, and Triangle of Sadness is a comedy; Triangle premiered at a 75-year-old festival, and, save for a vanishingly brief theatrical window, Glass Onion is available only on Netflix. Glass Onion was a pleasant way to spend Thanksgiving with my family, and after taking my family to The Menu, my mom wouldn’t talk to me. But beneath these superficial differences are fundamental similarities: they all feature a cast of rich and entitled blowhards. They all torment these blowhards for our amusement. All three even take place on islands nobody can escape. Given their success both critical (Triangle’s Palme d’Or) and financial (Glass Onion had Netflix’s best theatrical premiere ever), we see how economic inequality has become one of Hollywood’s most durable topics. Ironically, these movies have helped to stabilize the free trade of the theatrical marketplace.
The Menu is more direct and didactic than Triangle of Sadness, depicting a literal (if absurd) revolt by the working class. The movie finds a disenchanted gourmet chef, Slowik (Fiennes), kidnapping his privileged guests and subjecting them to a series of tortures born of class resentment. “Do you want to die with those who give, or those who take?” he asks Margot (Taylor-Joy), a fellow “shit shoveler.” Dismissing the pretension of subtext is one of the joys of horror, and while actual cannibalism is not on The Menu’s menu, the movie does “eat the rich,” in that the wealthy diners’ bodies are, through dismemberment and slaughter, essential ingredients of the prix fixe.
Notably, Slowik and his loyal kitchen staff aren’t interested in what the rich have. They don’t want wealth or octopus or pretzel sticks, like Triangle’s castaways do. When a table of finance bros offers to pay the cooks to let them go, the cooks wave them off: their goal is to burn the whole thing down. (Literally—it ends with the whole restaurant in flames.) “I’ve allowed my work to reach the price point where only the class of people in this room can access it,” Chef Slowik explains to his terrified guests. “And I’ve been fooled into trying to satisfy people who could never be satisfied. […] But that’s our culture, isn’t it?”
Unlike The Menu, which focuses on tensions between the bourgeoisie and the working class, or Triangle, whose wilderness setting eventually wipes away class all together, Glass Onion, a murder mystery set in the world of the ultrawealthy, is more interested in money’s effect on the people who have it. The whodunit is set on the private island of tech billionaire Miles Bron (Edward Norton), and he and his nearly-as-rich guests are only stranded with a murderer because the estate’s dock is a glass sculpture, impossible to see at night. This dangerous oversight is a testament to Bron’s reckless eccentricity and his stupidity, both aspects of gross wealth that writer-director Rian Johnson investigates while Daniel Craig’s Detective Benoit Blanc—well-to-do himself, but morally aligned with the audience—investigates the killing.
These inquiries probe an ensemble of privileged suspects, including a state governor (Kathryn Hahn), a men’s rights influencer (Dave Bautista), and a fashion designer (Kate Hudson) who spends the film defending the various offensive things she’s said, done, and worn. (“It was a tribute to Beyoncé, but people did not take it that way.”) They’ve all bonded with Bron over their shared love of “breaking” institutions, Bron’s second-favorite bit of tech jargon, after “disruption.” That “breaking the system” is closer to a Marxist phrase, only recently co-opted by CEOs afraid of oversight, seems as lost on this group as it is on their real-world analogues.
Glass Onion arrived in theaters at the same time that Elon Musk arrived at Twitter. Shortly after, Musk delivered his “extremely hardcore” ultimatum to the company and began sharing a series of offensive posts, including right-wing conspiracy theories, justifications for allowing hate speech, and, most dangerously, memes. The world already knew that Musk, a grandiose tech entrepreneur, was controversial. But these new messages exposed the more shocking revelation that he was also, to quote Detective Blanc, “so incredibly dumb.” This confirmation is perfectly matched with Glass Onion, in which Bron is a symbol of capitalism’s evil, not only for its cold calculation but also for its capacity to make idiots like him, with too much money and too much free time, among the most powerful people on the planet.
There’s real danger in Musk and our current “age of the petulant oligarch,” as Paul Krugman recently called it. “[T]he top 0.00001 percent’s share of total wealth today is almost 10 times what it was four decades ago,” he writes. “And the immense wealth of the modern super-elite has surely brought a lot of power, including the power to act childishly.” Glass Onion’s Bron would get along fantastically with Triangle’s Marxist captain and Russian capitalist. All three are perfectly willing to get drunk (on power or booze) and dispense half-understood economic axioms as geopolitical truth bombs, even as they steer their boat into dangerous waters in the name of free speech.
For films so preoccupied with power (and people who speak without thought), Glass Onion, The Menu, and Triangle of Sadness feel notably absent of anything related to Donald Trump. This aligns them, curiously, with a vast majority of recent movies. “For six years now, Trump has so dominated public discourse that it almost feels weird that the movies have mostly kept their distance,” The New York Times’s film critic A. O. Scott recently noted. This reticence points to another reason wealth was the subject of so many movies last year: it was replacing the subject of electoral politics. Heading into 2016, we were experiencing a gold rush of entertainment about Washington, including Veep, House of Cards, Homeland, Scandal—properties that saw elected officials through far different tonal filters but took for granted Americans’ seemingly insatiable appetite for stories about those they had, or hadn’t, voted for.
This changed as the Trump administration brought government machinations front-and-center in a new and outrageous way. His administration simultaneously made Washington too exhausting to recreate faithfully, and too ridiculous to parody. We “couldn’t make this stuff up” and it “would be too depressing to try.” The lives of the ultrawealthy, on the other hand, provided a new world to tackle, one that felt as rife for parody as DC used to be. Succession, HBO’s Emmy-winning drama about a rich media family, famously had its first table read the day Trump was elected; the timing turned out to be fortuitous for the show. As a character in The Menu (directed by one of Succession’s executive producers, Mark Mylod) describes it, the world of the ultrawealthy is “the base camp of Mount Bullshit.” HBO knew this well enough to green-light its second-buzziest hit after Succession, the luxury-resort-set The White Lotus. Strangely, Trump had to switch from money to politics to get audiences to look the opposite way.
Electoral politics’ slipping in and out of vogue shows that they can be a risky long-term bet for studios and production companies, which spend years and millions of dollars on projects that won’t hit airwaves for some time after they’re greenlit. This is due less to their controversial nature than to the fact that they are, by their nature, ephemeral. Yet, this new wave of popular, class-conscious movies is itself in a precarious historical position. These films are not as acutely issue-oriented as a Soviet propaganda film, but they’re still reflecting what Hollywood executives imagine is the will of the people. And that will can be fickle. Unlike other regimes, you don’t need a revolution to change Hollywood. You just need to watch something else.
Pat Cassels is an Emmy-winning writer, actor, and comedian. He was a staff writer for TBS’s Full Frontal with Samantha Bee and the head writer at CollegeHumor, and has contributed to The New York Times Book Review, Slate, and McSweeney’s.
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