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Cannes 2011. Rushes: "Play"

Some quick words on the last film I saw at Cannes, in Directors' Fortnight, and one of the festival's finest: Ruben Östlund's Play.  The film, shot digitally, acutely visualizes the interactions between two groups of children in a city in Sweden—a group of three boys (two white, one Asian) and the five dark-skinned boys who target the trio for harassment. The story is essentially that of a con: the larger group asks to see the cell phone of one of the white kids, claims it's similar to the mobile of his brother that was recently stolen, and through a patter-like process of conversational intimidation, relief, and vague threats convinces the three frightened boys to follow them to an obscure location to meet the supposed robbery victim.

Östlund shoots the film in master-shot long takes, letting the hustle and the unease evolve in extreme duration and usually in a fairly flattened frame so that everyone seems pinned to their spaces—always public spaces, malls, trams, streets, parks—free to step out of the frame or put their back to the camera, but somehow also uncomfortably held in check.  If one boy steps out of the frame you are certain he will mysteriously return later in the shot, or in the following one; Play's deep, long shots seem to have a passive gravitational pull to them.

The film roves around the town of Gothenberg as the three boys flee onto a tram and take several other forms of transport around town, everything visible through glass, in open space, the adults surrounding uninterested in or skeptical of involvement.  The result is a theater of discomfort and psychological coercion, the "play" of the title being both the game the larger gang plays on the smaller one to get them to do what they want—including a "good cop" routine having one boy apologize for the aggression of his friends and sound the voice of reason—and the way the social roles within and between different groups of friends, of races, of class play out when stuck in space and elongated in time.

Despite—or perhaps because of—the emphasis on real time, the film eventually acquires a strange kind of dream logic, the same kind of inertia that sees the hassled boys follow their tormentors sullenly, with a slack kind of resistance.  At one brilliant moment, when we see for a second that the con gang has their own problems outside of this minor hustle, it almost seems like the two groups have bonded together simply due to time spent together, distances traversed, the intimacy of the frame.

Unfortunately Östlund also sees the need to include additional "examples" and post-narrative information about the phenomena he is observing and his characters' place in the world—the exact kind of extraneous allegories, context and "flesh" that his beautiful technique is intended to mysteriously occlude.  A step back is not needed in a film whose focus is so tight and precise.  Yet the power of Play is not hindered by its unnecessary bookends. The film's supremely formal approach to exploring a social and psychological phenomena of extreme, fascinating dynamism, all within a restrained, almost muffled, documentary context of the transportation and interstitial spaces of Gothenberg, make it a remarkable discovery of cinema.

So glad you liked this film as much as I did. You don’t mention Haneke, but the film seems deeply indebted to him, to Code Unknown in particular, and specifically to that film’s agonizing subway sequence. But it also breathes more than a Haneke film and is less dependent on shock value. I love your line about how “everyone seems pinned to their spaces…free to step out of the frame or put their back to the camera, but somehow also uncomfortably held in check.” I don’t think there was another film in Cannes this year that played so brilliantly with the edges of the frame.
briliant and charming. seems fitting at Cannes this year.
Definitely a surrogate for Haneke. Good film though.

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