It wouldn’t be entirely accurate to say that Laura Wandel’s “Playground,” which premiered on Thursday in the Un Certain Regard section of the Cannes Film Festival, presents something we’ve never seen before.
Granted, the Belgian debut film does offer an uncommonly cold and unflinching depiction of childhood far removed from even the faintest glimmers of sentimentality — a rare feat for certain. But at the same time, that tenor feels entirely at home at the same festival that launched Jacques Audiard’s “A Prophet” and Laszlo Nemes’ “Son of Saul” into the art-house stratosphere.
Which is to say that the film’s originality stems from its creative use of mix-and-match, taking a schoolyard tale and treating it with same hard-nosed intensity as Audiard’s prison thriller and a here-and-now visual immediacy more common to a war film.
Running a taut 73 minutes, the film loses no time before throwing the viewer into the tumult of young life. It’s 7-year-old Nora’s first day of school, and she is simply not having it, making that clear as she wails into her father’s arms. Why is the young girl crying? It might have something to do with the vicious bullying her older brother Abel undergoes, while forcing his younger sister to not share a word with adults.
The biblical resonance attached to the brother’s name is no simple coincidence. As the bullying of Abel intensifies, so too does his insistence that Nora say nothing to their father or teachers. And as Nora’s empathy and alarm remain unspoken per her brother’s request, they start to curdle into venomous and more outwardly harmful expressions.
All of this happens within the confines of the school. From the first shot through to the last, Wandel uses an approach where the camera stays fixed at the young girl’s level as she barrels through the halls, never leaving the school’s four walls.
Indeed, the viewer experiences the world from the same four feet off the ground that Nora and Abel do — and if the camera never looks down at the character from above, nor does it ever look upwards. The only time we see adults’ faces are when they bend down to meet the child at her height.
But the stylistic choice is more than just “A Very Art-House Charlie Brown”; as the camera races alongside Nora in long, unbroken takes, often employing an intensely shallow depth of field to separate the young girl from her surroundings, one marvels at the technical difficulty of it all. If the tightly wound drama offers few breaks for levity, one can find the odd chuckle remarking on the set-up and wondering how they managed to find so many 3-foot, 7-inch focus pullers and camera operators.
But for the most part, “Playground” is no playground. The film uses a certain brand of European art-house severity to turn traditional depictions of childhood upside down. And while the film very ably achieves that task, it also makes you awfully glad to leave that world behind.
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