The cleaning lady turns Boss Lady in ‘Triangle of Sadness’

Dolly de Leon is a recipient of the L.A. Film Critics Association Award for Best Supporting Performer. Photos by Sina Görcz

By Wendell Gaa

When we as human beings are stripped of everyday modern conveniences which we take for granted, then how we adapt and how we survive reveal our true nature.  Can we be strong enough to be resourceful without losing our morals and principles?  These are but a few questions which are faced head on so beautifully and brilliantly in the black comedy film “Triangle of Sadness” by Swedish director Ruben Östlund in his English-language movie debut.

The plot concerns a young couple named Carl, a male model, and his lovely girlfriend Yaya, who are invited to sail on a luxury cruise together with diverse passengers that include affluent Russian oligarch Dimitry, an elderly British couple, the stroke-stricken German lady Therese, the lonesome tech millionaire Jarmo, a highly demanding cabin crew staff head named Paula and onboard Filipina cleaning lady Abigail, played by the talented Manila native Dolly de Leon.  The drunken captain of the cruise ship is played by longtime Hollywood vet Woody Harrelson, who excels in breathing flavor to the role, given how he has a knack for portraying characters who are unsympathetic, obnoxious and snarky. 

We get to know the oddball traits of the characters as they embark on a cruise voyage in what is presumably somewhere in the Mediterranean Sea, and the results are a real interesting mixture of dark humor and deadpan eccentrics as we see how people from different backgrounds interact with each other when riding the same ship.

The cruise doesn’t turn out to be the ideal vacation voyage.  When disaster strikes which results in the sinking of the ship, some survivors — which include Yaya, Carl, Therese, Dimitry, Paula and Abigail — are stranded on a seemingly isolated island.  A test of survival among the core characters then unfolds, as    people of different social and financial backgrounds are forced to live and work with one another under forced circumstances.

It is at this point of the movie where we really get to see Abigail step forward as a character given how she is the only one with expert cooking and survival skills.  It is especially with Paula, her boss on the cruise ship, whom she turns the tables on in terms of giving orders and instructions, and the rest of the survivors on the island are forced to give in to Abigail’s demands that she calls the shots in return for her providing them all assistance in preparing and gathering food.  

Her character as Abigail steps forward when the cruise ship is stranded on an isolated island.

Dolly de Leon is such a joy to watch as Abigail, every minute she is onscreen she simply steals the show, and she brings depth and humor in the growth of her character from being an outwardly modest cleaning lady to rise as a domineering matriarchal figure towards the surviving cruise passengers on the island.  No matter what may be motivating her behavior and actions, you just can’t help but root for her throughout.  I am truly hoping that she will be a serious frontrunner in the acting category for this Oscars season. 

The other cast members also shine and are a perfect foil to Abigail, especially Yaya, Carl and Paula.  I was heartbroken to learn that the gorgeous actress who portrayed Yaya, South African model Charlbi Dean, had tragically passed away due to sudden illness a few months ago before the U.S. premiere of this film, which ended up being her final role.  No doubt she could have had a blossoming career ahead of her had she lived.    

I found the brief scenes of the onboard Filipino crew members to be very interesting and it is the first big film where I have seen a depiction of their cabin life at sea.  Seeing them onscreen brought me back personal memories of my own experiences meeting several Filipino cruise staff members from past vacation sea cruises.  I am glad the filmmaking world is taking notice of their dedicated work, while I simultaneously hope that future films in Hollywood and beyond don’t just portray Filipinos in so-called “menial” roles.  Although the strong portrayal of Dolly de Leon’s Abigail here is undoubtedly a promising break from that “subservient trope.”

I am proud to know that Dolly happens to share the same alma mater as my father the late Ambassador Willy C. Gaa, the University of the Philippines Diliman where she earned a Bachelor of Arts in Theater in 1995.  She is a recipient of the L.A. Film Critics Association Award for Best Supporting Performer and a Golden Globe nominee for Best Supporting Actress for Motion Picture.

(C) The FilAm 2023

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