Tuesday 9 July 2013

Games without frontiers: "Play"

Anybody who caught Swedish director Ruben Östlund's funny, provocative Involuntary upon its UK release back in 2010 will find his follow-up Play, extrapolated from several real-life criminal incidents, every bit as peculiar and striking. The new film follows two lines of inquiry. In a shopping mall, a gang of teenage migrants stage an elaborate graft on their white contemporaries; these developments are punctuated by scenes and increasingly desperate announcements on board a train heading from Malmö to Gothenberg, wherein an inspector bemoans the presence of an unclaimed wooden cradle in the communal baggage area.

Two films down the line, Östlund's technique is emerging as not dissimilar to that observed in certain contemporary comedies (Curb Your Enthusiasm being the most prominent example): put your - in Östlund's case, only semi-professional - performers into awkward social situations, then sit back and observe. The level of external control involved ensures Östlund's visions are cooler, and perhaps even crueller, holding the characters at a remove, as though they were under surveillance, or trapping them behind glass, as a scientist would a sample under a microscope slide.

Though still often squirmingly funny, these set-ups are intended less to usher us less towards laughs than they are towards a recognition the events they depict are very much a part of our world; the safety net provided by, say, the Larry David persona in Curb has here been comprehensively removed. When the migrants bully a male passenger on a tram, the result is a scene very nearly as jolting as the one involving Juliette Binoche on the Metro train in Michael Haneke's Code Unknown - and, more than that, another reminder of just how much of the modern world is given over to bullying and hectoring.

A political subtext emerges from these interactions, and it turns out to be no coincidence that the film should open in a shopping centre. Play, with its expertly corralled young cast, comes to suggest that consumerism has given rise to a newly unhealthy need to acquire material goods - call it pester power - and that adults and authority figures have started to give into kids everywhere. (As in We Need To Talk About Kevin, the cradle is regarded as an obstruction in more ways than one.) Östlund's subjects nonetheless remain vulnerable: they are just kids, after all, and as liable to be preyed upon by one another as they are by prevailing market forces.

The filmmaker lays out his credentials as the new Haneke in a scene in which one of the migrants' victims is challenged to complete one hundred push-ups by his captors; as Haneke might, Östlund leaves his camera running on every last, despairing effort. He has sharp points to make - the victims' tearful calls home are diverted to voicemail, because their parents are off working the long hours required to keep their heads above water - and he makes them well, yet the film around them feels a mite overstretched: at two hours, it's all too clearly in thrall to the idea harsh reality has to equal real time.

As in Involuntary, Östlund asks us to question just how far we're prepared to go along with the dominant ideology (neo-liberal capitalism, in this instance, with its dazzling illusion that we can get whatsoever we want), but the earlier film held one's attention across diverse strands, allowing the director to explore new paths and alleyways. Play meanders into the countryside and back, nagging away at its themes like a finger on a loose tooth, in a way that proves pleasurable to some extent, yet increasingly protracted - and problematic besides. Östlund is so much the scientist here that he risks appearing neutral on the data he's collected, which in turn leaves his film open to dangerous interpretations.

One reading - let's call it the EDL reading - of Play is that the jolting sights it presents us with, such as the displaced tribe of native Americans we're shown dining in the mall's McDonalds, are an inevitable consequence of globalisation; that neo-liberalism has led to the wrong laws being enforced, and nice white boys (like the ones in the movie, one of whom even plays the clarinet!) getting turned over by nefarious darkskins. For all its formal brilliance, Play's Rorschach blot-isms can be maddening: belatedly, we get the big reveal and some kind of counterimage (a nice young white girl dancing to African tribal music), but we've spent too long getting there. And even then, its own liberalism could be taken as a rather brusque statement - that, like that cradle, immigrants are here: get used to it.

Play opens in selected cinemas from Friday.

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