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NYFF 2011. Ruben Östlund's "Play"

"What's the line between a provocative, no-holds-barred drama about race relations and a straight-up racist film?"

"While occasionally more plodding than playful, Ruben Östlund's ingenious foray into conceptual cinema succeeds in both skewering the pretensions of seemingly liberal and tolerant Swedes and challenging the audience's own preconceptions," writes Richard Porton in Cinema Scope. "Inspired by an actual incident in Gothenburg, Sweden's second-largest city, Östlund casts a harsh, and frequently funny, light on Scandinavian racial tensions by focusing on the efforts of some clever kids of African origin to swindle younger, wealthier schoolchildren through sheer force of will instead of violence. Even though their victims have ample opportunities to escape or fight back when threatened with the loss of their wallets and cell phones, the African kids hold the upper hand because their well-heeled prey are intimidated by both the race of the scam artists and their own liberal conditioning."

"What's the line between a provocative, no-holds-barred drama about race relations and a straight-up racist film?" asks Noel Murray at the AV Club. "It's bold, no doubt, and it'll certainly get the viewer thinking about his or her own presumptions about race. But the deck here is way too stacked. Östlund and his superb young cast achieve an unforced naturalism, but the scenes follow more or less the same direction time after time, with the blacks bullying the non-blacks and the latter going along, even though there's rarely any immediate threat. Is this meant to be a critique of political correctness run amok… or is Östlund just trying to push buttons?"

"Play certainly fits the bill as a meticulously constructed right-wing fantasy," argues Michael Sicinski at Cargo. It's "the perfect tonic for anyone who has ever decried a Haneke or von Trier film as reactionary claptrap. It's the real deal."

"While obviously indebted to the great Code Unknown in its dispassionate depiction of casual urban cruelty (as well as in its classroom-presentation coda), Play is less disjointed and more immersive in its clear focus on a single narrative strand," writes Michał Oleszczyk for Fandor. "Coolly orchestrated into a series of tour-de-force long takes (many of which employ a heavy dose of perfectly applied zoom-shifting), the film manages to do without a single instance of traditional shot/reverse-shot editing…. The handling of physical space is masterful throughout, as the focus shifts from pointedly windowless interiors (often rendered in ultra-dense shots, overlaid with multiple lines and reflections) to the wide open spaces of Gotheborg's outskirts."

Earlier: Daniel Kasman praises the film from Cannes: "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."

Updates: "By the time Play arrived at NYFF, I'd heard from a conservative that it was a trenchant condemnation of the irrational PC-ization of speech and from a committed Marxist that it was fascist," writes Vadim Rizov for the L. "Now. Maybe, intent doesn't matter. Maybe the presentation of police files on-screen, without comment, is enough; just like in United 93, in 20 years, this'll play more interestingly and less unnervingly. As it stands, Play covers its rhetorical ass from every direction. This is fair: no less eloquent a film than Do the Right Thing is careful to apportion blame to everyone who escalates the situation, deliberately obfuscating potential charges of race-baiting either way. For all I know, Play is meant in the same spirit… But this movie bothers me, and maybe not in ways it's supposed to."

Michael J Anderson finds it "disquieting is that Play may just represent the future of both European cinema and the continent itself."

Update, 10/16: "Ruben Östlund's moral tale is the boldest formal experiment in the main slate at this year's New York Film Festival, a trait matched in force only by the confusion of its politics," argues Phil Coldiron in Slant.

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This film is the perfect antidote to the racism of Kaurismaki’s Le Havre, a movie that cashes in on all the romance of the white man’s burden; at a press conference, Ostlund (who says he interviewed the real-life characters extensively before making the movie) talked precisely about how as long as whites keep these cultural tokens and stereotypes alive of The Immigrant Victim, never an individual, and seen perfectly in the Kaurismaki, it will exist to be appropriated. By the end of the film, it seems pretty clear that if Play is racist, it’s racist against the whites, but it’s the characters, not Ostlund, who are clearly thinking in these terms… Maybe the smartest movie of the festival. Reminded me of Jackass.
how did it remind you of Jackass?
It’s a prankish film about pranksters (not least for the way it masquerades as a conservative parable only to reveal all expectations of a Haneke racial revenge cycle film are the viewer’s projections and that it’s been a comedy all along), which means formal stunts of all sorts, including real-time sequences of kids shitting, climbing trees, doing 80+ pushups, running to exhaustion, playing instruments: complete collapse of actor and character as bodies performing for camera, sort of punkish cinema of attractions. Similar things been done fin long-take sequences in Alonso and Haneke (and Wenders), but seems as much an outgrowth of youtube era: sequences of single events carried to their conclusion.

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