Playground is a penetrating, enveloping, and often brutal portrait of childhood.
Playground, Laura Wandel’s first feature, is indeed set on an actual playground, but perhaps its French title, Un Monde (a world) more accurately conveys how the Belgian director approaches this brutal coming-of-age story. She opens with a close-up of extreme, tender emotion. It is Nora’s (Maya Vanderbeque) first day at elementary school, and as she clasps onto her loving older brother Abel (Günter Duret), her worst fears seem to be confirmed: she will have to make it alone, at least until lunchtime. At child height, where the film will stay for its entire 72 minutes, the hand of her father (Karim Leklou) guides her, until he too is told he may go no further.
The recognizable misery of settling into the structure and rituals of school life is taken to a new level of abjection in Playground. The cinematography and grey, almost shiny color palette emphasize the plastic tiles and hard, cold stone that lines so many schools. From the taste of chlorine to the dampness of an autumn playground, the film skillfully evokes the heightened senses of a child. It does this through a rigid formality: almost every shot follows Nora in close up, in extreme shallow focus, as she navigates the school.
The school-yard social system is clear, but not overripe. As the kids file from lesson to lesson, through corridors, or shiver at the swimming pool, the Foucauldian prison is clearly felt. That Playground is a kind of kindergarten Son of Saul becomes clearer as Wandel reveals Nora’s hero, the biblically named Abel, is not the soccer champion he presents himself as, but the victim of vicious bullying. She immediately makes friends — but even they whisper about her brother when he wets himself. Evidently, class is also an issue — she misses out on a birthday invite, and her father doesn’t work because he is looking after his kids — but Wandel doesn’t dwell on it. Class simply isn’t a part of Nora’s understanding of her world.
Wandel’s aesthetic strategy has its limitations, however. As Abel’s suffering reaches morbid heights, there are times that the viewer could do with seeing the faces and subtle reactions of players on this playground world. An angelic teaching assistant who offers protection, like a Bresson woman, is employed to give Nora a spiritual glimpse of the peace within playground walls. At other times, a reliance on obvious visuals like diving underwater to show a state of limbo and turmoil does little more than link scenes of pain together. When Nora spots Abel being stuffed into a bin by relentless bullies, she covers her eyes with a sheet, pretending not to see, in a self-conscious reference to the film’s entire style.
What sticks in Playground, ultimately, are the small details that capture childhood activity and behavior. How gravel in an eye feels like the worst thing in the world — until it isn’t, as one sees when the film cuts from tears on the playground to laughter in the lunchroom. How placing leaves around a bird, dead in a sandpit, or aimlessly digging holes in the ground, get the children closer to understanding death, life, and the earth itself. These moments offer a balance to the cruelty of Wandel’s world. By the time Nora begins to don a denim jacket in the film’s second half, she begins to resemble one of Pialat’s working-class rebels. Even if Playground is no L’Enfance nue, Wandel’s film burrows right into the mind of its characters, leaving you gasping for air.
Originally published as part of Cannes Film Festival 2021 — Dispatch 1.