From Squid Game and Parasite to Cannes Film Festival prizewinner Triangle of Sadness, the super-rich are getting their comeuppance from everyday people. In the wake of these successes there is a clear global appetite for exposing and satirizing the huge gaps in wealth and status.
Super rich in terms here is relative. In recent films, such as Jordan Peele’s US or Todd Phillips’ Joker, the target of revenge is anyone perceived as being more privileged by those who perceive themselves to have the right to take it.
Contrary to the meritocratic ideal of the American Dream, Peele was suggesting that class (not just race) is responsible for division today in the United States.
“There is a certain horrific, physical element used to undermine the rich in these stories that taps into a well of anger against the system,” film critic and producer Jason Solomons says to The Guardian’s Vanessa Thorpe. “I think filmmakers are intuiting the levels of anger and frustration out there, the frustration of trying to break through and earn a living, and offering audiences the pleasure of some catharsis.”
In the same article, Thorpe highlights two more recent films — The Forgiven and I Came By — challenging the received social order. The former stars Jessica Chastain and Ralph Fiennes as rich travelers to Morocco. The latter features Hugh Bonneville as a wealthy London philanthropist who is not all that he seems. In both films the comfortably-off are revealed to be callous, hedonistic and detached, and in the case of Bonneville’s Sir Hector Blake, very dangerous.
READ MORE: Down with the rich! Class rage fuels new wave of ‘us v them’ films and plays (The Guardian)
Like Us, director Jessica M. Thompson takes class war firmly into the realms of horror in her film The Invitation, which was released in August.
The Invitation centers Evie, a struggling artist in New York who lost her father as a teenager, has just lost her mother to cancer, and is feeling lonelier than she ever has before.
“I really identify with Evie,” Thompson explains. “When I was 24, I moved to New York City to become a filmmaker. I didn’t know a single soul. I struggled for quite a while — working survival jobs, figuring out how to thrive in this incredible city, how to fight for what you want, how not to feel lonely. Of course, things go awry. But through that [Evie] finds her strength, her conviction of character, and literally gets to stick it to the man.”
The motivation for director Ruben Östlund’s Triangle of Sadness is similar. He told Scott Roxborough at The Hollywood Reporter: “Quite often I feel trapped in the culture that I live in. I want to be somewhere else, but cultural expectations are forcing me into a corner. There’s the dilemma between what I want to do and what I feel that I have to do. I write the scenes to make it as hard as possible for the characters to deal with the situation.”
Triangle of Sadness starts on a luxury cruise with a rogue’s gallery of super-rich passengers, including a Russian oligarch and a British arms dealer. The cruise ends catastrophically, and the passengers and crew find themselves marooned on a deserted island. Hierarchy is suddenly flipped upside down. The lowly housekeeper now has power since she is the only one who knows how to fish.
The ship’s captain (Woody Harrelson) plays a Marxist who quotes from The Communist Manifesto while his passengers puke with seasickness. Östlund is as interested in the tawdry economic value of beauty as he is on inverting class structure.
“You know, if you are born beautiful, it can be something that can help you climb up in society, even if you don’t have money or an education,” the director tells Roxborough. “Most of us are brought up by our parents saying, ‘Looks aren’t important,’ but it’s so obvious we live in a world where looks are very important, maybe even more important today in this digital image world than they had been before.”
READ MORE: Ruben Ostlund on Roasting Capitalism in His Take-No-Prisoners Satire ‘Triangle of Sadness’ (The Hollywood Reporter)
One of Östlund’s most obvious influences is director Michael Haneke, whose most extreme satire of European bourgeoisie is Funny Games. Here, a well-off family is brutally attacked without mercy or provocation other than being symbolic of wealth and privilege.
The callousness of the attack in Funny Games, with the protagonist dressed all in white, deliberately recalls Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 adaptation of Anthony Burgess’ satire, A Clockwork Orange. Three years earlier, lead actor Malcolm McDowell had also starred in Lindsay Anderson’s Cannes Palm D’Or winner If… about a group of pupils staging a savage insurrection at a boys’ boarding school.
Fast-forward to now, and the serfs — the servants, the commoners, the poor and the less-than rich — are overturning the established order and surviving to rule the roost.
In one of Östlund’s previous films, Force Majeure, a supposedly exemplary family man flees to save himself instead of his wife and children at the first sign of an avalanche.
“It has become a universal and caustic indictment on the proclaimed values of a democratic society and capitalism,” Movieweb’s Victoria Pochapska finds.
Östlund himself appears more nuanced in his feelings about the ultra-rich. Putting himself in their shoes, he says he is interested in how we all react when spoiled.
“For example, when I fly business class, I behave differently to when I fly economy. I sit there and read more slowly and drink more slowly as I watch passengers heading for economy class. It is almost impossible to not be affected by privilege.”
He adds, “Successful people are often very socially skilled otherwise they wouldn’t be so successful. There’s an ongoing myth that successful and rich people are horrible, but it’s reductive. I wanted the sweet old English couple [in Triangle of Sadness] to be the most sympathetic characters in the film. They are nice and respectful to everyone — they just happen to have made their money on landmines and hand grenades. It’s probably a more accurate description of what the world looks like.”
The Netflix film The White Tiger, Ramin Bahrani’s adaptation of the novel by Aravind Adiga, follows Balram, who comes from a poor Indian village and uses his wit and cunning to escape from poverty — by learning from and plotting against his far richer employers. Balram is the hero because his employers are not only rich but seen as rude and abusive towards Balram, whom they treat as less deserving.
From South Korea and India to the US and beyond, class and class warfare is a universal phenomenon. But nowhere is it surely more entrenched than in the UK.
James Cameron’s Titanic leaned none too subtly on a story about love being blind to class. In the film, the poor passengers — the Irish Leonardo DiCaprios — are forced below decks, while those on the upper (class) deck enjoy fancy dinners, ballroom dances and the presence of the captain. Billy Zane takes the role of pantomime villain and posh girl Kate Winslet lives to tell the tale.