It would not be entirely accurate to say that Laura Wandel’s “playground”, which premiered on Thursday in the Un sure Regard section of the Cannes Film Festival, is something we have never seen before.
Of course, the Belgian first film offers an unusually cold and seamless depiction of childhood that has been removed from even the faintest radiance of emotion – a rare feat for some. But at the same time, this tenor feels absolutely at home at the same festival that released “A Prophet” by Jacques Audiard and “Son of Saul” by Laszlo Nemes.
That is, the originality of the film stems from its creative use of mix-and-match, taking a backyard story and treating it with the same intensity as the Audiard prison thriller and a here-and-now visual immediacy. most common in a War Movie.
Running a stretched 73 minutes, the film wastes no time before throwing the viewer into the frenzy of new life. It’s the first day of school for 7-year-old Nora and she just doesn’t have it, making it clear as she mourns in her father’s arms. Why is the young girl crying? It may be related to the vicious bullying her older brother, Abel, is going through, forcing his younger sister not to share a word with adults.
The biblical resonance associated with the brother’s name is not a mere coincidence. As Abel’s intimidation intensifies, so does his insistence that Nora say nothing to her father or their teachers. And as Nora’s empathy and alertness remain indifferent at her brother’s request, they begin to accumulate poisonous and more externally harmful expressions.
All of this happens within the confines of the school. From the first shot to the last, Wandel uses an approach where the camera remains fixed at the young girl level as a barrel in the classroom, never leaving the four walls of the school.
Indeed, the viewer experiences the world from the same four feet from the ground that Nora and Abel make – even if the camera never looks down on the character, nor does it ever look up. The only time we see adult faces is when they bend over to meet the child at her height.
But the stylistic choice is more than “A Very Art-House Charlie Brown”. As the camera struggles alongside Nora, constantly, non-stop, often using a very shallow depth of field to separate the young girl from her surroundings, one admires everyone’s technical difficulty. If the dramatically injured drama offers a few breaks for indulgence, one may find the strange laughter commenting on the set and wondering how they managed to find so many 3 foot, 7 inch focusing cameras and camera operators.
But for the most part, “Playground” is not a playground. The film uses a specific brand of European art showcase to overturn the traditional depictions of childhood. And while the film accomplishes this task very well, it also makes you very happy to leave this world behind.
See the issue of TheWrap magazine for digital Cannes here.