Glasgow Film Festival 2012: Swedish drama ‘Play’ is frustrating in both good and bad ways

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Written by Ruben Östlund and Erik Hemmendorff
Directed by Ruben Östlund
Sweden/Denmark/Finland, 2011

Play is a frequently harrowing and thoughtful film about manipulation, bullying, identity, race and customs. Primarily rooted in uncomfortable ambiguity, it is based on a series of real cases of bullying and robbery that occurred in Gothenburg, Sweden in recent years. Set against the inner city backdrop of that city, the main narrative details an elaborate scheme known as the “little brother number”. Involving elaborate role-play and rhetoric rather than threats of pure brute force, the con of a gang of youths is, like the film itself, reliant on subtle, implied menace.

A group of five black youths mentally harass three friends, two white from “traditional” Swedish backgrounds and one whose family emigrated from Asia, for unclear reasons that eventually reveal more material aims. Starting near a shopping mall, the con leads to a forced, seemingly aimless march out of the city that eventually leads to the countryside, the perpetrators prolonging the scheme at their own whim. The fuel for the success of the con, as well as previous attempts glimpsed in an opening sequence and one event midway through, is each group’s mindset regarding race and societal mores. Aware that they likely appear threatening as a group, the gang take advantage of the good will of the targets they outnumber, assuming the three boys will be pleasant and forthcoming to any suggestions so as not to offend members of a minority group. While allegiances sometimes shift, the trio rarely talk back at their psychological tormentors even when pushed. The gang at one point even reverse the blame for the incident onto their targets, one member saying something along the lines of “Anyone dumb enough to show his cell phone to five black guys deserves whatever he gets.” The victims have several opportunities to escape but never take them, and there is also the possibility that the trio’s fear and gullibility provokes the extent of the gang’s torturous ruse. The voyeuristic style of the filmmaking presents but never comments on the situations at hand, provoking the audience to themselves assess the actions of the characters and reach their own conclusions.

Play is shot in a series of long, static takes, even for its intimate scenes, refusing any close identification with the characters. The film’s uncomfortable method of shooting is especially reminiscent of the works of Michael Haneke. Lacking in manipulative camera angles, the shots of fixed perspective have characters frequently coming in and out of frame, causing a sense of detachment that prevents access to a particular point of view. One is instead forced to pay close attention to every facet of each framed shot, alongside every audio element that comes into play from people both on and off screen, luring the viewer into a troubling position of being made to witness something without knowing exactly what that thing is. The result is a palpable, harrowing sense of dread that is the film’s greatest asset. The uncomfortable atmosphere constantly suggests the threat of terror and violence; like in many a Haneke film, when the latter does come into play, it is actually in surprising ways and situations, providing a jarring potency in its unexpectedness.

This central narrative of Play is a very strong, chilling work in its own right. Unfortunately, it is just a central narrative amongst some supplementary material that is nowhere near as successful. The prologue in which the method behind the gang’s ruse is laid out for the viewer through their conning of a brother and sister in a shopping mall is not a problem, though it is perhaps a bit too long. The film is elsewhere padded with diversions into other material with only fleeting thematic relevance to the main concerns. Some brief footage is devoted to South American Indian street musicians. More is devoted to cutaways to a train wherein crew members make repeated attempts to have a mysterious obstruction-causing wooden cradle claimed and removed by an unknown party, to no avail despite speaker announcements in every language they can think of. There is also a bothersome multi-part coda, involving one of the gang members, that reduces the value of what has come before in its reduction of questions regarding justice and racial profiling into simple, strict ideologies. It certainly diminishes some of the film’s prior potency. The main, ambiguous conflict of Play is rich and compelling enough in its own right that the inclusion of this coda and the other excess baggage strands is especially confusing and disheartening.

Josh Slater-Williams

This screened as part of the Glasgow Youth Film Festival, directly preceding the main Glasgow Film Festival.

Visit the official website of the Glasgow Film Festival.

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