In Triangle of Sadness, the new, Palme d’Or–winning dark comedy from Ruben Östlund, the setup for the year’s most unforgettable scene begins with a seemingly tossed-off detail. In attempting to organize a formal Captain’s Dinner on a luxury yacht, Paula (Vicki Berlin), the ship’s high-energy, detail-oriented head steward, can’t get Captain Thomas Smith (Woody Harrelson) to commit to any night but Thursday. Ordinarily, this would be fine, except the ship is set to hit a low-pressure system that evening. Still, the captain’s the captain and orders are orders so Thursday it is. What’s a cruise without some choppy waters anyway?
Captain Smith’s stubbornness has catastrophic and unintended consequences, but it’s not the only force at work. The day of the dinner, Vera (Sunnyi Melles)—the pampered wife of Dimitry (Zlatko Burić), a Russian manure titan fond of telling others “I sell shit!”—decides that she’d like the entire crew of the ship to go swimming as a treat. It’s a ridiculous request, but the customer is always right, particularly customers with her kind of money. So swimming they go, letting the night’s seafood feast spoil without refrigeration in their absence: a second flap of the butterfly’s wings, on the way to a perfect storm of inclement weather and bodily fluids.
What follows has the rhythm and progression of a symphonic movement. A few notes—a darkening sky, a guest making an unexpected and alarmingly forceful belch—turn into a theme that repeats in variations and builds in force. The mounting disaster even develops its own subplots, like a passenger who attempts to fight nausea by downing champagne. (This doesn’t work out.) In time, it all builds to a climactic cascade of vomit (some thick, some thin), diarrhea, and rainwater before being joined with another theme that serves as a kind of counterpoint.
Fueled by a seemingly bottomless supply of liquor (and an equally bottomless ability to consume it), Dimitry, a product of the Soviet Union who’s embraced capitalism with the fervency of a convert, and Captain Smith, a diehard socialist, debate politics over the ship’s loudspeaker. As the guests get sicker and sicker and the ship rocks ever more violently, they trade quotes from Ronald Reagan, Noam Chomsky, Margaret Thatcher, Karl Marx, and others. Like Sideshow Bob stepping on an array of rakes, the spectacle builds and builds, then loses comic steam, then regains it with twice the force.
Like the rest of Triangle of Sadness, the sequence is blunt, broad, and obvious in its satire—but also extremely funny and executed with an almost scary level of technical assurance. Each new eruption of vomit is both funny in its own way, precisely framed, and executed with expert comic timing, in part because Östlund has the patience to let the gags play out. “I think that real-time aspect often helps a certain kind of humor that comes out,” the director recently told Vox. “You can highlight small things, and then it becomes comical. It sort of reminds me of these Renaissance paintings, where there’s just a ton going on in the image, and maybe there’s a guy doing something silly in the background or a dog peeking over the frame, and it’s funny to look at.”
But Triangle of Sadness’ orgiastic seasickness owes just as much to a pair of films from the early 1970s: Blazing Saddles and The Exorcist. From the former it borrows the idea of building a comic rhythm from human emissions; its famous campfire flatulence scene may have lost its power to shock, but it’s still a model of comically timed bodily emissions. And, like every film to make vomiting a central feature, it should thank The Exorcist for paving the way.
Movies had featured puking before The Exorcist. In Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring, a boy gets sick when left alone with the body of a woman his older companions have raped and killed. John Waters’s Multiple Maniacs prominently features a “puke eater” (an effect the director achieved with Alka-Seltzer). But for mainstream audiences in 1973, watching Linda Blair’s projectile vomit in the face of Jason Miller’s Father Karras was like something they’d never seen before. It’s effectively the Big Bang from which all future movie upchuck flows. That includes the moment in Rob Reiner’s 1986 film Stand by Me, in which Gordie (Wil Wheaton) tells the story of a pie-eating contest that descends into chaos after a bullied kid’s self-induced puking prompts everyone in attendance to follow suit.
It’s the comic yin to The Exorcist’s horrific yang, but most memorable puking scenes are neither entirely one or the other. Like sex and violence, scenes of nausea and vomit tend to hit viewers on a biological level. (Some find they can’t watch them at all.) However paradoxically, the familiarity of the act makes such moments so shocking. Terry Jones appears cartoonishly obese as Mr. Creosote in the most famous scene from Monty Python’s the Meaning of Life and meets an absurd fate after consuming that fatal “wafer-thin mint.” But the gagging and retching that precede it are disturbingly true to life. The food poisoning scene in Bridesmaids hits so hard because it plays like an only slightly heightened version of a common experience.
It’s easy to see all of the above (and other films) in Triangle of Sadness, which synthesizes them into a kind of magnum barfus. The sheer number of vomiting characters rivals Stand by Me, the commitment to maximum grossness recalls Meaning of Life, and the force of expulsion rivals the demonically assisted spew of The Exorcist. But Östlund combines them to serve his own purpose, in the process removing any sense of relief.
Gordie’s story ends. Maya Rudolph and her bridesmaids piece themselves together again. Even Regan’s pea soup moment, though it escalates the horror of the movie, has a beginning, middle, and (gross) end. Triangle of Sadness’s central scene goes on and on, intensifying without abating and never suggesting that order can ever be restored. The scene provides no sense of resolution, and the film offers only a brief glimpse of the following morning before visiting a different sort of chaos on the yacht. The immediate problem passes, but nothing has been fixed. No one has learned anything. The purging has done nothing to expel the sickness that caused it.
Keith Phipps is a writer and editor specializing in film and TV. Formerly: Uproxx, The Dissolve, and The A.V. Club.