The Movie Waffler New to MUBI - PLAYGROUND | The Movie Waffler


playground review
A seven-year-old girl enters primary school and discovers her older brother is the subject of intense bullying.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Laura Wandel

Starring: Maya Vanderbeque, Günter Duret, Karim Leklou, Laura Verlinden

playground poster

He's rarely cited as an influence, but the once unique filmmaking style of the late Alan Clarke has become the de facto technique for European filmmakers dealing with traumatic subject matter. For those unfamiliar with Clarke's work, think of a video game in which the camera is always centred on and hovering around the protagonist. Recent examples of this include László Nemes's Son of Saul, Myroslav Slaboshpytskyi's The Tribe and Audrey Diwan's Happening.

The latest European filmmaker to evoke Clarke, either intentionally or through osmosis, is Belgium's Laura Wandel. Her feature debut Playground not only adopts Clarke's signature visual style but also follows his narrative formula of not so much telling a traditional story but rather spending a period of time in the company of a central character. It may be set in a primary school, but Wandel's debut is as harrowing as Clarke's infamous borstal drama Scum.

playground review

The central figure here is seven-year-old Nora (Maya Vanderbeque), whom we meet as she tearfully bids farewell to her father (Karim Leklou) on her first morning of school. Nora has an older brother, Abel (Günter Duret), who is a few years ahead of her, and it initially seems as though Abel is set to show her the ropes and look out for his kid sister. Once the lunch bell rings however, Abel doesn't want to be seen around his sister, and it quickly becomes apparent why. Abel has been selected as the target of the school's bullies, who torment him with physical torture like dunking his head in a toilet and trapping him inside a bin.

Initially, Nora tries to help her brother by alerting teachers and telling her father of Abel's predicament. But this just makes things worse for Abel, who in turn grows even more distant from his sister. Making friends of her own, Nora realises she has a degree of stability absent from her brother's school life, and she too begins to turn on Abel in order to fit in. This cycle continues as Abel himself finds another boy to take his frustrations out on in a cruel manner.

playground review

Playground is as effective an advert for home-schooling as you could imagine. It has the structure of a prison drama, with Nora representing the new fish who quickly discovers she needs to toughen up if she has any hope of survival. The school years are supposed to be the best of your life, but for many kids it's akin to a prison sentence, and even most murderers don’t have to stick it out for 12 years.

Keeping her camera trained on Nora, and at her level in the manner of E.T., Wandel reinforces her young protagonist's vulnerability and the apparent lack of help from the adult world. Teachers are portrayed as sympathetic but ineffectual at best, indifferent at worst. Bodies, some twice the size of Nora, run around and crash into her on the playground, while she contends with sniggering in the classroom due to her poor learning skills.

playground review

Vanderbeque's performance is supernaturally good, a testament to Wandel's skill as a director. How a filmmaker can evoke such a realistic turn from such a young performer is beyond me, but Vanderbeque is so convincing that we never once feel like we're watching a child actor play a role. Vanderbeque's young face carries the stress and strain of someone who has lived a lot longer than seven years. I guess school makes you grow up quickly. It's the time when you realise that for all your family and friends, when it comes down to it, you're on your own. More so than reading, 'riting and 'rithmetic, school teaches you how to keep your head down, how to hustle, how to avoid unwanted attention, how you can't rise above others without trampling on them, and that cruellest lesson of all, that you're either a victim or a bully.

The original French language title of Playground is 'Un Monde', which translates to 'A World.' It's perhaps a more fitting moniker for Wandel's film, as the classrooms, halls and playground here act as a microcosm of greater society, a distilling of the adult world down to its primal origins. Whenever adults commit some atrocity, people like to talk about the innocence of children. The sad truth is that we're rarely crueller than when we're children, that time when we're both at our most tribal and most narcissistic. You just have to look at the adult world to see many of us fail to progress from this state.

 is on MUBI UK now.

2022 movie reviews