The new humanism of Ostlund, White and Sorrentino

„What is there to like? It is just rich people talking about their lives.“
The guy I was speaking to did not like La Grande Bellezza and could not understand why I was so obsessed with it. I am not sure how I answered, and if I did at all, but in the coming years, since that night in 2015, the global film industry moved more towards my acquaintance’s liking. He liked movies that “had a point”, and the entertainment world delivered many a film and series about various identities, identity, and class-based struggles: even in comic book movie format. Since then, the most popular and arguably best chronicler of “rich people talking”, Wood Allen suffered a complete removal from the cultural scene, and we, who liked that sort of stuff, were forced to hit the archives for films that were not about any specific, pressing social problem, and were not helping us “do better” and “learn”.
The past year and a half, however, signalled a slight correction coming.
The first sign of things changing (or “vibe shifting”, as the cool kids say) was Mike White’s dazzling first season of The White Lotus. It was a breath of fresh air as it allowed its characters to be much more than pure cardboard cut-outs of their “identities”. They were primarily human, dominated by lust, greed, as well as love and kindness, which meant that those who were claiming that they were above it all due to their identity came out as most villainous, inhumane, and deluded.
While the series, which had an equally stellar and more popular second season, is satirical, it is not unkind or nihilistic. It has a deep interest in its characters, it trusts them to develop as they are and allows us to see their points of view and while it does pass judgment on some, it is neither moralising nor detached and nasty (like, for example, “Succession”).
2023 was filled with films about rich people talking, and by far the best one was “The Triangle of Sadness”, which, like “The White Lotus”, is a deeply humanistic film. Ruben Ostlund’s keen eye for how human relationships, in reality, differ from how the “polite” and “thinking” society tries to make us think about them, is what made him great in “Force Majure” and “The Square”. In the “Triangle”, however, he is even warmer to his characters and makes us deeply invested in them as people, especially because of their many faults.
Come to think of it, it is precisely what humanism in art is primarily about: meeting (and loving) people as they are and not how you think they should be.
Given how much our culture is now concerned with how things fit into various discourses and what they reference, and even if they satisfy specific quotas, rather than allowing art to “just” show how the world is (from the point of view of the artists), what Ostlund, White and Sorrentino are doing is amazing. However, it is sad that one can only do it in films that are at least on the surface, arch send-ups of “rich people talking”, as it is there that characters are the most liberated. Indeed, that seems to be the greatest privilege of being a “rich” character: that you can be a complex person, not bound by “an identity”, while if it is all slightly satirical you can also allow others (maids, prostitutes, hotel staff) to be free as well.
“Tar”, a much more flawed and plodding, film tried to do the same but relied too much on saying its points rather than showing them. In its most (in)famous scene, it has the protagonist berating a student for being obsessed with identity. Maybe, like we had the “Bechdel test”, we should have a “Tar test” related more generally to identity in art: are two characters able to have a conversation that is not about the topic of “the society” or their “identity”? And even if they are not, does the work of art try to depict them as all-knowing about their social (and moral) position?
While Tar does make interesting points, it suffers from very obviously trying to be a “serious film”, with its overlong run time and muted colours. Its greatest mistake is that it does not allow us to just be awed by its (anti)heroine and fall in love with her despite her flaws. No, she had to be shown to be a “rags to riches” person, thus we have to pity her as a poor girl done wrong, but not a genius destroyed by lesser people.
This inability to just show insanely successful people as just otherworldly and amoral is also present in the somewhat hammy piece of social critique that is “the Menu”, which also lapsed into the discussion of victimhood (the main part of any identity-art) in its final act.
Still, the identity-art continues to be popular and holds sway even in films that are not explicitly morality tales. For instance, the cloying and (once again) overlong, “Everything everywhere all at once” for all of its forced quirkiness and playfulness, had no choice but to have its heroine be saintly in the end. One cannot imagine a mainstream film about a downtrodden and unhappy, but morally neutral, character showing them as narcissists or having them fail in their duties to others in the end, without coding it as “wrong” or “tragic”. Imagine, the protagonist of EEAAO just walking away from her family and its problems and smiling, either in one of the alternate realities or just in the final act.
That, indeed, is the greatest privilege of “rich people talking”, they can be human. That is why Ostlund, White, and Sorrentino are so important right now. They are the harbingers of a new Renaissance, a new post-code film industry in which we can revel in art depicting people as they are and not as “identities”.

What else I liked in the past two years:

Megan (2023) – smart satirical horror

The Northman (2022) – visually stunning and complex take on Hamlet in Viking-era Iceland

Top Gun: Maverick (2022) – what a block buster should be

The Last Night in Soho (2021) – a cool look at the Sixties in London

Pig (2021) – a great film about love and loss

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