Play – a political view * The political dimension of this film is perhaps best accessed by examining its enigmatic title. Ruben Ostlund has made a film that explores every possible meaning of the word “play” and reveals them as a concise allegorical portrait of juvenile delinquency.
Firstly, we should work on the assumption that their elaborate form of extortion – a con – employs the gang of bullies as actors in a sort of depraved theatre. The “little brother” con relies on an element of trust to be established by the aggressor and preys on the victim's good nature. One wonders where the bullies developed a taste for such cruel and unusual punishment. Such a desire to not only do harm, but to do so in a cool way. In the cinema itself? It seems the pervasive influence of the Hollywood crime and gangster genres has many fans in real-world crime. Take for example the reports of real-world gangsters impersonating John Travolta and Samuel L Jackson in Pulp Fiction (1994) by holding people at gunpoint with their pistol held at ninety degrees to the side in homage to Tarantino's anti-heroes, or the glamour of Brian de Palma's Scarface (1983).
Taking this at face value, the history of cinema itself is guilty of providing plenty of role-models for the aspiring criminal with a sense of style! Sometimes it even seems that the criminals of the big screen are in thrall to their forebears. Our own european cinema has acknowledged the importance of cool in its screen thugs. Take for instance the kids in Matteo Garrone's Gomorrah (2008) firing off rounds into the sky to cries of “just like Tony Montana!” What the director Ostlund has done is take the same process and reposition it to suburban Sweden and replace the guns with schoolboy bullying. In this respect, what Play does so well is show us a portrait of wasted creativity amongst these young men. Just imagine the work that has gone into planning this con being channelled into a real piece of theatre or alternatively into the boys' chosen sports.
Just as likely as emulating violent movies is the idea that the bullies of Play are bored of all the tried and tested forms of torment, and are now trying out an elaborate con. The film's young bullies think it's all a game to be played, and won. Albeit a game with the promise of a new phone and some new clothes and very adult consequences! This points us to another root cause of delinquency, boredom and disenfranchisement. Without social activities that engage young people's own creativity and curiosity, ennui and disenchantment will set in. A european parliament non-legislative resolution on juvenile delinquency from 2006 stated that the member states' media should encourage local authorities to prioritise after-school activities for young people. Continuing this work in the name of satisfying young people's colossal appetite for excitement and inspiration will be good progress.
A case in point is this year's looting in the UK, a series of violent attacks directed initially at the police in solidarity with the family of a wrongfully killed young man and led to mass demonstrations. However as riots grew, many of the looters across the country this summer were not stealing with such a principled motivation. Many were looting out of ennui and the promise of impunity, transcending class, youth or race and boiling simply down to unfocussed anger at the establishment and greed. British newspapers were full of rioters caught on camera with expressions of mischievous glee on their faces. They too were playing a game, the opposition was the crown prosecution service. The causes of the riots are too many to go into here, but perhaps future european strategies can use the UK riots as an acute example of the problems of delinquency.
The final meaning of the word “play” that I want to explore is that of “playfulness” or humour. The film is often very funny and the humour is often in territory close to taboo. Whether Ostlund intends to make reference directly to migration by casting an all-black group of aggressors is open to debate, they speak Swedish among each other and as such can be assumed to be at least second generation immigrants. The script however reveals the extent to which the bully group is aware of the cultural power of their skin colour, the standout line being when a bully asks a naïve young blond boy “why would you lend your phone to a bunch of black kids?” in addition to being a very funny line, to play so casually with the unvoiced fear that black skin can still cause in regions of incoming migration reveals a very developed sense of self. The bullies are no fools. If only those who react with intolerance in these regions could show such an understanding of difference and human variety, then the stresses of excessive migration can surely be eased. Somebody experienced in integration, Josep Gonzàlez-Cambray, attaché to the secretary-general for migration in the Catalan government, advises: “the fear of receiving chaotic migration flows, negative perception of getting ghettos in town and competition for public resources. The only way to integrate migrants into society is by getting both migrant and receiving communities involved into the process.*” As I see it, as well as being a fantastic film on any level, the use of humour in Play is hugely valuable to this process.
*by Nick Shaw, British member of '27 Times Cinema'
Via '27 Times Cinema' established in 2010, the LUX Prize gives the opportunity to 27 European young cinema lovers to be substantially involved in the Venice International Film Festival where they can watch, report and reflect upon films.