Updated: May 10
LOVE CONQUERS ALL
By Yasmin Jenoui
Laura Wandel’s harrowing feature debut Playground is an immersive and poignant exploration into the confusion and violence of childhood. Shot at the eye level of 7 year old protagonist Nora (Maya Vanderbeque), we’re taken on a compelling journey into innocence lost, as Nora attempts to navigate life at a new school where her brother Abel (Gunter Duret) is being brutally bullied.
Desperate to protect her brother, Nora goes against his wishes and attempts to seek help and safety in the adults. However, she quickly learns that no one is coming to the rescue, especially not her struggling father (Karim Leklou), and often “helping only makes it worse”. Wandel expertly avoids overly sensational depictions of bullying, and instead, the film’s jarring nature lies in the silent, yet relentless, emotional turmoil experienced by the children. Here, the familiar confines of a school playground serves as a microcosm of a cruel and unjust world.
The invisible antagonist of the film is the abstract concept of violence itself; its continually shifting forms and cyclical nature. Nora helplessly plays witness to the physical violence her brother endures, but in part, the real offence lies in its institutional roots. Frederic Noirhomme’s cinematography – with its gritty lensing, grey-blue wash, and cold realism – draws Foucauldian Comparisons to the bleak, hard aesthetic of a prison drama. The indifference of those in power, the domino effects of austerity, and the politics of exploitation are hugely complex themes to filter through the eyes of a child, but this bold choice serves to highlight the ways in which the culture of violence trickles down from the adult ‘real’ world to the school playgrounds. Nora’s father’s unemployment is used as a means to alienate her by her peers, and even amongst adults he has no power to help Abel’s situation. The school’s feeble, bureaucratic response to violence can almost be read as indifference. The children are left to their own devices, and notions of punishment, redemption, and survival become blurred, fuelling the cycle of violence further. School becomes a place of disciplining the mind and body, and in adopting these very adult lessons of power and oppression, the children create their own curriculum on the playground.
What’s most unnerving, is violence’s poisonous ability to defile even the most sacred bond between brother and sister, and purest of hearts. With her reputation tainted, morals compromised, and pleas ignored, Nora becomes resentful towards Abel, and starts acting out against him. Nora shifts her focus on prioritising her position amongst the other children, performing superficial tasks to get invited to an upcoming birthday party and even outrightly denouncing her brother. However, Wandel takes care not to point blame, her inquiring lens is one of compassion not accusation. Even the adult characters are not framed as bad people, merely detached, powerless to intervene, and well versed in the inevitably of oppression. Other than Nora’s protective father, the only adult to spend more than a moment in Nora’s world (and in frame) is her sympathetic teacher Agnes (Laura Verlinden), but even she could offer no real solace or resolve, only to say ‘sometimes we don’t know what to do’.
Vanderbeque gives what could be one of the most powerful child-performances to date, her face an open canvas, every slight glance loaded with emotion. The camera’s uncomfortably close proximity evokes a real sense of claustrophobia, and perfectly illustrates the world closing in on a child coming into consciousness. No other perspective can intrude, and as Nora’s faith in adults and authority withers, we witness her arrive to the harsh realisation that violence is inescapable.
As matters escalate, and Abel himself becomes the perpetrator of schoolyard cruelty, Nora’s old soul recognises the urgency of intervention, and she takes matters into her own hands. In the poignant ending scene, as Abel gets ready to administer a harsh blow to his victim, Nora runs up and hugs him tightly in an act of love. Abel freezes, abandons violence, and desperately hugs Nora back. For such a small child, Nora carries an immensely heavy emotional weight throughout the film, though in the end, her strength and compassion proves to be paramount. Wandel leaves us with a hopeful message, that love trumps all, even the relentless continuum of violence.
Yasmin Jenoui (She/her)
Birds Eye View Project Assistant
Yasmin graduated from Goldsmiths with a Media and Communications BA in which she specialised in film and screenwriting. She’s since gained experience working in scripted development, industry research, and film exhibition. Sharing thought-provoking and original stories is what fuels her creative ambition, and she especially prides herself on prioritising fair, accurate, and inclusive representation.