NYFF ’11 Review: Unfunny Games: Racism and Spacism at “Play”

Based on an actual case of Gotheborg-based youth gang that managed to terrorize a number of kids while hardly ever resorting to physical violence, Ruben Östlund’s Play provokes a knee-jerk comparison with Michael Haneke from its Funny Games-like title). 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.

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. As we watch two Caucasian kids and their Asian friend more or less abducted by a gang of immigrant black boys, Östlund plays with our expectations – mostly by never forcing a tone upon a given scene, thus tingeing all of them with a flickering sense of borderline-funny unease. One running joke, having to do with an abandoned wooden cradle on board of an impeccably tidy commuter train, even manages to build up a comic force of a first-rate Jacques Tati gag.

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. The thickening moral complexity of the story finds its climax – if not resolution – in an unsettling scene towards the end, in which our facile moral judgment is at once coaxed and called into question, as the initiative is finally taken over by adults and immediately provokes an out-in-the-street shouting match.

Östlund is primarily interested in creating a sense of wavering tension that hardly ever reaches the acute visceral crescendoes of, say, Haneke’s Benny’s Video. Instead of hinting at impending doom, Play remains modestly matter-of-fact and doesn’t aim at any grand conclusions. It’s a kind of movie that provokes multiple questions and will probably fuel many a heated discussion, but which doesn’t seem to know better about the issues at hand than any given viewer.

Michał Oleszczyk is a contributor to “Kino”, the Polish film monthly and author of the first Polish monograph of Terence Davies (“Bitter Exile”, Kraków 2008).

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