Motion sickness and motion pictures share a long history together. Dry-heave or projectile, on-screen vomiting has often been a bit of a running gag, writes Prahlad Srihari.
Last Updated: 07.55 AM, May 14, 2023
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AN IMPROMPTU CONCERT of Technicolor yawns (as the Aussies might say) takes place aboard a luxury yacht in the wildest set piece in Ruben Östlund’s Triangle of Sadness. The guests — rich, entitled and well-dressed — arrive for the captain’s dinner. What’s for dinner? A seven-course meal that includes lobster, caviar, escargot, oysters and plenty of champagne to wash everything down. As the guests dig in, a ferocious storm rocks the boat in more ways than one. With each sway, the feeling of nausea gets more and more pronounced until forced into vivid expression. The first person to blow their dinner is followed by another and then another in a chain reaction. Many return to their cabins to deal with violent diarrhoea. The decks become engulfed in a deluge of bodily fluids as the pipes rupture. (Fun fact: The film’s US distributor NEON provided audiences with barf bags as part of its marketing campaign.) All the while, the American captain (Woody Harrelson) and a Russian oligarch guest (Zlatko Burić) volley quotes at each other in a drunken Marxism vs Capitalism debate over the intercom.
Their debate serves as an ironic soundtrack to 15 minutes of intestinal turmoil snowballing into gross-out chaos in Östlund’s eat-the-rich-and-puke-them-out satire. To take aim at the vulgar excesses of the rich caught in a self-destructive cycle of overconsumption, the Swedish filmmaker employs the language of vulgar excess. As he has done throughout his career, he telegraphs his punches in a broad yet pointed manner. Through an abrupt reversal of power imbalance, he reminds the one-percenters just how helpless they really are without the working classes toiling overtime to keep their ship of fools afloat.
Motion sickness and motion pictures share a long history together. Dry-heave or projectile, chunky or splashy, on-screen vomiting has often been a bit of a running gag. But it has emerged as a stock visual motif in recent years. Besides Triangle of Sadness, the previous year brought us an array of vomit-stained films. In a scene that captures Damien Chazelle’s Babylon in all its decadent excess and all its extravagant mess, a high-on-cocaine-and-cake Margot Robbie hurls right into the face of Hollywood’s tux-clad upper crust. In a scene that captures Andrew Dominik’s Blonde in all its decadent excess and all its extravagant mess, a drugged-up Ana de Armas hurls right into the camera. Andrea Riseborough makes herself throw up in the struggle to give up drinking in To Leslie. Cate Blanchett throws up in Tár because she is overcome by feelings of self-disgust for her past missteps.
Go back a few years: Vomit functions akin to a lie detector in Rian Johnson’s murder mystery Knives Out, where Ana de Armas plays a live-in nurse who must speak the truth to avoid an acidic encore. Or as Daniel Craig’s detective Benoit Blanc describes it more verbosely, she has “a regurgitative reaction to mistruthing”. Go back a couple years more: in Steven Soderbergh’s heist comedy, Craig’s imprisoned safe-cracker Joe Bang weaponises vomiting, feigning food poisoning to make his great escape.
The ratio of female to male characters caught puking on screen may suggest the phenomenon is gendered. But as Anne Cohen wrote in a 2019 essay for Refinery29, “These characters aren’t vomiting because they’re women. They’re vomiting because they’re human beings with volatile stomachs grappling with crazy circumstances, and for once, women get to be at the nexus of those events. Theirs is a vomit with specific intent. Rather than cry, or whine, or bear the pain silently and with a smile, as so many ingenues have in the past, their trauma is physically acknowledged, then purged. Out with the old, and in with the new.”
For those who get free exposure therapy to all sorts of stenches and sights on the daily commute, such scenes may not threaten a déjà food. For those with a sensitive stomach, just reading this article may make them want to take a shower after. On a literal level, characters vomit as a physiological response to pregnancy, intoxication or sickness. On a figurative level, characters vomit in grief, over pressure, on discovering a shocking truth, or after choking up with emotions their words can’t express and their bodies can’t process.
If vomiting has been employed as a visual shorthand ad nauseum, it’s because it possesses a versatility other bodily functions don’t. As a visceral expression of disgust, it is the strongest. As a purge of emotions, it is immediate. Sometimes, the significance lies not in the act of vomiting or whatever sickness/excess caused it, but the factors surrounding it. Take for instance what it says about a character who holds a drunk friend’s hair while vomiting into a toilet bowl as opposed to a character who lets her hair coil into the bowl. Or when a rookie homicide detective upchucks his doughnuts and tuna sandwich after visiting a gruesome crime scene.
As the rich vomit and shit in Triangle of Sadness, their bodies betray a universal human truth hidden beneath their Balenciagas and Pradas: our bank accounts may not be anywhere close to alike in value but our anatomical functions are anything but different. Bodies act as equalisers, counterbalancing the economic differences between the haves and the have-nots. Östlund mobilises the act of vomiting to dissolve the boundaries between the internal and the external and thereby disrupt class hierarchies.
In the grotesqueries of vomiting, the borders between horror and comedy dissolve as well. Just as you are not sure whether to wince or laugh at the misfortunes of the rich in Triangle of Sadness, the same goes for: 1. the scene in The Exorcist where Linda Blair projectile vomits neon-green pea soup all over the face of an elderly priest; 2. the scene in Drag Me to Hell where an elderly woman projectile vomits worms all over the face of Alison Lohman; 3. all the stomach-churning Jackass stunts like sweatsuit cocktail and vomelette. Nothing tests your gag reflex like Jackass. Bad taste is its byword.
The “pope of trash” John Waters wrote in his book Shock Value, “To me, bad taste is what entertainment is all about. If someone vomits watching one of my films, it’s like getting a standing ovation. But one must remember that there is such a thing as good bad taste and bad bad taste...Good bad taste can be creatively nauseating but must, at the same time, appeal to the especially twisted sense of humour, which is anything but universal.” As to what kind of bad taste Triangle of Sadness aspires for and achieves — your mileage may vary.
In this age of remake-reboot-recycle, the on-screen puking outbreak could well be considered a sound indicator as to the health of modern filmmaking. Is there a more fitting motif to describe the deconstructed reflux of franchise films? The endless platter of superhero junk and warmed-up leftovers of classics past that studios continue to serve is enough to make you puke. No amount of nostalgia, spoonful or plateful, can make the stuff go down.
Given its fluidity as a metaphor, emesis can be likened to the creative process itself: deep internal stirrings lead to an unease that feels like the coming of a sickness; whatever the germ may be — bacteria, alcohol, rage, misery, desolation, inner demons — festers till the sickness can’t be suppressed; till everything comes pouring out, sometimes in a clear stream and sometimes in jumbled-up disarray; and once what was inside is outside, you feel great relief like you have been cleansed. “All art is a kind of confession, more or less oblique,” wrote James Baldwin in his Esquire essay about Ingmar Bergman (whose filmography had some serial pukers). “All artists, if they are to survive, are forced, at last, to tell the whole story, to vomit the anguish up.”