By Christopher Sharrett.
Wandel has us pondering a crucial concern: is education predicated on patriarchal-capitalist ideology, as would seem most obvious, or do we confront, at this level of human development, some inherent savagery in the species (a problem with ‘human nature’)?”
I was very happy to read on this site, some weeks ago, Alexandra Heller-Nicholas’s remarks on Playground, an exemplary film by Belgian director Laura Wandel. The film, ostensibly about schoolyard bullying by and of young children, has many integrated ambitions, all of them accomplished, making this 72-minute film one of the most important of the last year. It played for a few weeks at urban “art houses” such as New York’s Film Forum (one of the few such surviving theaters), and, no doubt because of the “art” designation, vanished from view (a Region 1 DVD was recently released).
Wandel’s title is actually Un monde. I suggest that the title should more properly be Le monde, since what the director gives us is our civilization in microcosm, with a grammar school showing us the “socialization” process into which young children are introduced; I should qualify this to say that I imagine that the educational system of Belgium (and, perhaps, the rest of Europe) is at least marginally better than that of the United States, which pretends to be a model of all things (in fact, education in America is deplorable, with grammar and secondary schools understaffed, underfunded, and, increasingly, a means of indoctrinating children with rightist nonsense, including the dismissal, for the most part, of evolution as a foundation of science – we won’t go into the devolution of universities, increasingly no more than preparation for the “private sector”). Playground touches on some of the basic ideological problems facing elementary education; its principal concern seems to be the dehumanization that comes with the educational process as currently constructed. Wandel has us pondering a crucial concern: is education predicated on patriarchal-capitalist ideology, as would seem most obvious, or do we confront, at this level of human development, some inherent savagery in the species (a problem with “human nature”)?
We are shown in the establishing sequence close-ups of tearful Nora (Maya Vanderbeque) and her brother Abel (Gunter Duret) on their first day of school. Nora would appear to be in the third grade; Abel, a bit older, perhaps in the fourth. Although they have experienced school before (they know the alphabet), we see a grueling ordeal, mainly for Nora – and young Maya Vanderbeque’s performance is extraordinary in expressing a range of tormented emotional/psychological states. The first moments are occupied with a tight shot of Nora’s face as she cries while holding on desperately to her brother, hugging him close. Abel tries to comfort her, assuring her she will make “lots of friends.” What we see is the purest expression of human love that I can imagine (here we must consider, as in the whole film, how extraordinary are the two actors), making me think how thoroughly the word “love” has been dismissed as unscientific by academic Marxism (or at least sectors of it), and certainly by the pretenses of postmodern theory, which to my mind theorizes hardly a thing that is testable. One can say that the love expressed by Nora and Abel is simply evidence of chemical processes, or of their production by certain social forces – I can’t argue too much to the contrary, since, after all, I will be talking about the film’s presentation of the social impact of school. But as Robin Wood remarked, we are indeed products of our civilization, but not, can we say, like a can of beans is a product. We can say, at the least, that Nora and Abel express the most essential form of human solidarity and then witness the slow assault on it by a taken-for-granted institution.
Nora and Abel express the most essential form of human solidarity and then witness the slow assault on it by a taken-for-granted institution.”
Nora’s clinging to her brother is absolute, as is her brother’s need to comfort his little sister. Then the hands of a woman, her blond hair turning gray, whom I will call Supervisor (Sophia Leboutte), enters the frame, to separate gently the siblings and move them along. Nora turns toward her father (Karim Leklou), hugging and petitioning him, looking up pitifully at his face. Her father is about to accompany Nora to the school building, but is told that parents are no longer allowed to accompany their children onto the premises. Is this reasonable? A new wave of anxiety comes over Nora. Parent and child must acquiesce; Nora is led off by Supervisor, but Nora keeps looking back, as if some last-minute rescue might be at hand, or at least she will maintain a connection with her father if she can maintain visual contact. She isn’t turned to a pillar of salt, as Biblical and other mythologies warn about looking back (the point of such myth seems often to be avoid being stuck in the past), because she shows how such cautions can’t be absolute, since the need for the consolations of what you leave behind seems here basic, elementary.
A note on style. It has been observed that Wandel’s camera goes no higher than the children’s heads as it frames them, or follows in tracking shots, as it often does. I couldn’t help but think of the Joy Division song, “They Walked in Line” as I watched this film. Walking in line is basic, of course, to the organization, to the military and the incarcerated, and, at the extreme end, inmates of the death camps, whose walk precedes execution. But walking in line, as Playground observes, is basic to the regimentation of our civilization, learned first in grammar school, or, god help us, kindergarten. This regimentation is rendered in the film’s style, which takes me to a film I commented on several years ago in this publication, Laszlo Nemes’ Son of Saul (2015), about a Sonderkommando in the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp in 1943. In that essay, I used questionable judgment in remarking on my shock of recognition when, as a grammar-school student, I had a quick, peculiar kind of understanding when I saw my first images of the Holocaust. They were far-removed from my world, of course, yet I felt that my experience of a cruel parochial grammar school policed by sadistic, irrational nuns and priests had some affiliation with the ethic of European fascism, although it would take me years to appreciate fully the reasons why and how.
This is territory explored by both Wandel and Nemes. Both of their cameras stay behind their subjects as they are walked from place to place, or, alternately, are stationary as their lenses observe their subjects sitting quietly, usually in some state of fear or intimidation. In Playground and Son of Saul, the camera stays with the subject from the occipital perspective while other action appears at some remove beyond (in Saul, the hideous action is out of focus; in Playground it is focused but quickly observed and at a distance). In Playground, Nora is studied as she is asked questions (innocuous ones at first); she struggles to achieve the smile seemingly expected of her. It is difficult. Her brother comforts her by assuring her they would meet at lunchtime. When lunchtime arrives, Nora proceeds to her brother’s seating area in the cafeteria, but is halted by Supervisor. She is steered toward her own group. When Nora tries to sneak back, she is halted: “Mademoiselle!” She must sit only with her group, even for the short meal. Nora is learning the rules of this odd game, where you cannot have the ordinary social interaction you would expect with a family member, nor can you enjoy the expected, everyday emotions flowing from spontaneous behavior.
In the schoolyard, Nora is especially frustrated; she can have no contact with Abel, since he must play with the boys of his own class, and that play is for some reason violent. Abel turns Nora around, sending her away, when she tries to join her brother. Worse, there seems to be a violation of the so-called rules, since Antoine, one of the boys “playing” with Abel’s group, is much taller and obviously older than Abel’s class. The play gets more violent. When Nora intercedes, the scene becomes a whirlwind of cruelty, Antoine grabbing the neck of Abel, then Nora, then a dark-skinned boy named Ismael who becomes both a bully and a victim. We learn that a good deal of the schoolyard play is involved in bullying that is part of the secret school code, meaning that one cannot “tell” on other students (boys or girls, but principally boys – all of this is a rite of male initiation, but girls have an allotted role in teasing and tormenting).
There seems to be the possibility of comfort in the form of a gentle, somewhat taller girl named Victoire, who asks Nora if she wants to play. Nora is too confused and distraught even to respond, as she looks, disheartened, toward her brother. The option of female play – and the notion, by extension, of an alternative female-run society – is momentarily foreclosed since the primacy of the male has already established itself in Nora’s mind and emotions.
A good part of the brief running time of the film centers on what is known in this country as “phys ed,” or the disciplining of the body through a substantial period of exercise that seems pointless and perhaps dangerous. Nora is in a gymnasium with other girls. She is first told to walk along a balance beam, an exercise associated with gymnastics. The balancing act seems very strenuous for Nora (later, she can perform such gymnastics outside [it’s still a trial], without the supervision of teachers, although in competitive circumstances). She falls from the beam. Later, she stands with a group of girls; they are told via barked orders to hold up their arms at the shoulder and rotate them clockwise, then counterclockwise, an exercise that seems so stressful in its performance—the image emphasizing conformity— that images by Riefenstahl come to mind. Still later, Nora is in a swimming pool, exercise that takes up a sizeable portion of the short film. Nora sits with her female classmates, each waiting a turn to jump in the pool, each student monitored by an instructor wielding a rod (at one point, as a good disciplinarian, he shouts “did I say ‘fool around’?!”). One senses Nora’s anxiety (and perhaps recalls one’s own at such moments of childhood pseudo-education). The most grueling moment of swimming instruction shows Nora and classmates holding onto the edge of the pool, kicking their legs upward in the water to learn “leg buoyancy.” This exercise looks especially stressful as Nora appears to be gasping, trying to “keep up” with the others. At yet another pool moment, we are underwater with Nora; she holds her breath in a world of silence. At the opposite end of the pool are other girls, floating about. Nora holds her nose shut, no doubt improper procedure. The moment is ambiguous: is the moment one of escape for Nora or simply more torment?
The exercise scenes look prolonged, raising questions. How much of this exercise is actually needed, considering we are dealing with what appear to be energetic, healthy children? Does all of this activity amount to “disciplining” the children’s bodies? This physical “education” brings to mind, for this writer, the culture of sports that is a billion-dollar industry, and takes the place of the life of the mind (schoolwork seems minimal, with Nora less than engaged as she looks out the window, preoccupied with Abel). The film offers images of an alternate world, particularly Nora, Victoire, and their friends sitting on a bench, then walking off together hand in hand, laughing.
The father of Nora and Abel seems to have legitimate concern for his children, yet his motives are dubious, and he is easily gulled. At the end of the first day, the father sees marks on Abel’s face; the boy lies, saying they were caused by football. The father wants merely to know if the boy scored winning points. The sanctioning of violence by male rule comes further into focus. As the father becomes more informed (because Nora feels desperate, not being able to abide the code of silence imposed on her be Abel), he adopts the role of policeman, coming to the schoolyard perimeter, telling Nora to climb up to the fence, giving her instructions on observing Abel’s activity. This results in a school “hearing,” where Nora sits, the camera locked on her, as she/we hear the “testimony,” which amounts to the male parents trying to defend their positions. Nora seems somewhat dumbfounded – as she well might-at the proceedings. As earlier, she is a person acted-upon.
Agnes’s consolations are limited. She tells Nora that “boys fight” at a certain age, but Nora knows “this wasn’t a fight.” She is unable to say that she has witnessed sadistic, pathological, masculinist behavior that deforms the entire school…. Nora increasingly finds herself in an inferno of hatred.”
The heroine of the piece is Agnes, superbly played by Laura Verlinden. Agnes is an empathetic teacher who, predictably, is taunted by the bully-boy students (“mind your own business!”), thought of not all that highly by Supervisor (who fails to note the cruelty being dealt Abel – whose head is dunked in the lavatory toilet by the fiendish boys). Agnes comforts Nora, who comes to love her teacher. Agnes is transferred; her final moments are among the most touching in recent cinema (which precludes genuine emotion), as Nora gives Agnes a drawing, then embraces her teacher, whose embrace is fully returned. The film makes plain that Agnes’s sort is rare. In fairness, although we contrast Agnes to Supervisor, the latter is older, her graying hair accompanied by a furrowed, disapproving brow. She has been at this for a long time, making her taxed, too overcome by the whole affair, especially the limits of her role. She makes plain the burden faced by even middle-class schools, unable to employ sufficient staff or even educate the teachers they have in the real dynamics of children and the educational process. We can figure that, one day, the angelic Agnes will be another Supervisor, impatient and ill-tempered – unless she leaves the profession as the truth becomes clear.
Agnes’s consolations are limited. She tells Nora that “boys fight” at a certain age, but Nora knows “this wasn’t a fight.” She is unable to say that she has witnessed sadistic, pathological, masculinist behavior that deforms the entire school, but she has little instructive contact with these issues and is far too young to understand behavior at the proper level of consciousness. The school seems to understand the bullying as mere “acting up” that disrupts the day, but nothing more threatening, nothing awful.
Nora increasingly finds herself in an inferno of hatred. She hugs Abel after the toilet-dunking scene. “Why are they doing this?” Abel is unable to answer. He too is confused, but is aware he mustn’t betray his tormentors. He intuits that he is going through a ritual (he perhaps has less vocabulary than Nora, and is less inclined toward emotional expression—he knows boys have to be “tough”), which will eventually permit him (although it is doubtful he is aware at the moment of his pain) to himself torment others.
Moments of joy occur, as when Nora, Victoire, and a little girl named Clemence play with their sandwiches (it has been difficult for Nora to eat), turning them into miniature animals. The three girls walk off hand-in-hand during gym period. But moments turn bad. Nora eats a bowl of soup as the other girls discuss an upcoming party. Nora is asked is her brother plays football; Nora responds with a qualified affirmative. Abel cannot attend, because “footballers are racists.” Nora sinks. The “racist” response is an example of a deformed education. Today, and in this nation certainly, racism is often within that portion of the sports audience critical of black players who “take a knee” in solidarity with those who are victims of racism. I have a relative who, with all their family, stopped watching football when players began the knee gesture. Black athletes, at whatever salary or status, are seen by many still as entertainers who cannot cross certain racial boundaries. The girls tell Nora, in their attempt at a definition, that footballers are racist because “they care only about themselves,” not bad as a tentative understanding or people whose “game” is power over others, whether players be male or female. But it is wholly unfair to Abel, who at the moment is a victim, and doesn’t partake of any bigotry. He is, of course, entering the society of the male.
The Trash Dumpster
One of the more unnerving moments, shot in a manner very much redolent of Son of Saul, shows boys attempting to throw Abel into a large metal dumpster, the awful moment at the edge of the image, the camera moving so that we cannot be totally certain of what’s going on, although the action is clear enough (separating the violence from images in Saul). This moment is closely associated with a torment visited on Abel, the dumpster just behind Nora in the distance. She is playing “blind man’s bluff” with other children, a blue scarf wrapped around her head (the color blue seems dominant, a signifier, perhaps, for depression). As she spins about on the playground, several boys, no doubt the ones we have been seeing bullying Abel, knock her to the ground. She pauses as she kneels, as she will do again, as if she is trying to meditate quickly, despondently, on what has been happening to her. Victoire observes her, telling her that her knee is scratched. As Supervisor tends to the scratched knee, Nora stares out the window to the spot containing the dumpster. She is now transforming into an observer, and the camera emphasizes the role, staying with her from a frontal view,
The Bird Funeral
The thoughts of the girls, certainly those of Nora, become morbid, even a trifle gothic. They play with a dead bird, for which they have created a watery little grave in the mud, with a few tiny flowers and twigs. One of the girls mentions a story about a child who once attended the school but became ill and disappeared. Nora is told that the girl died and is buried under the spot where they play. Nora is smart enough to dismiss the story as nonsense, but she is asked if she has every dug to the bottom of the schoolyard, which contains the remains of many students. The talk turns to the actual depths of the earth, a conversation Nora take seriously enough to continue with her father by asking “how deep is the sea?,” as if the sea could indeed contain all the bodies of her schoolmates past and present. The Supervisor appears abruptly at the bird’s grave, taking away the dead thing, admonishing the girls for playing with something “dirty.” The scolding has many connotations, as she reminds the children of the world of the forbidden and abject, that which refuses the symbolic order and appeals to unconscious impulses.
There is a brief moment that is as chilling as anything in this uncompromised film. Nora has returned to the classroom and stands before a blackboard, attempting to write with a piece of chalk. She has scrawled the definite article “Les..” followed by two more letters which look like “oi”. She pauses as the scene changes. Education seems to have been crippled entirely by the events tolerated – or at least surrendered to out of hopelessness – as Nora seems paralyzed, a gifted child stymied by trauma. Elsewhere, she sits at her desk writing the sentence “The swallows will return” as she gazes out the window, apparently looking for Abel, or at the dumpster, or other sites of her torment. The mind cannot thrive, unless we imagine that Nora is able to daydream.
The party, from which Nora and Abel are excluded, becomes central to the denouement. Abel becomes associated with urine (“he smells”) after the toilet-dunking moment. He is branded as Other, to a point that Nora denies he is her brother, her false remark prompted by her brother’s exclusion of her from playground life and his insistent torment by the others. Her “telling” on his impotence at fighting off the bullies a major betrayal of the perverse young male code, which, when seen outside of its childish naïveté, is a basic rule of male order.
Today, schools seem about little more than preparing people to serve late capitalism, beginning with the cruel conduct of the schoolyard, and education policy-makers have acquiesced, ruling out the humanities for the most part, along with the humanist philosophy flowing from the liberal arts disciplines.”
But the party invitations and the Nora/Abel exclusion are a form of class bias. These two children are too “gross” to be accepted by polite society, as it chooses to define itself. On the playground, Nora accosts Victoire, pulling the invitations from her hand. They are torn in the process. Nora continues to cling to the precious pieces of paper, tearing them as she falls to the ground; the camera stays tight on her as she kneels, a hopeless posture similar to the “blind man’s bluff” incident. Later, she pastes together the invitations, with the help of the angelic Agnes. The world is temporarily, tentatively, put back together.
Suffocation and Redemption
As the film draws to a conclusion, it becomes clear that the Bird’s Funeral establishes its final, dominant tone, with Nora sinking into an emotional abyss provoked by the peculiar world of bullying by the male, girls following along despite their innate possibilities for joy. Now apparently permanently alienated, she becomes reconciled to the world of the spectator. We watch her watching the world of “play,” her brother joining the older boys in their wretched violence. At one point, we see her digging by herself a hole in the ground – is she now taking seriously this fanciful world of the dead, the gothic world of disappearance and decay, the real destination of those who enroll in a school? Here I could not help but call to mind the world of prison delineated by a variety of people: Van Gogh, Dostoevsky, Genet (the latter a bit too “ludic.”) I call to mind also my own childhood experience of bullies – towering over myself and my friends – thinking them crazy. What exactly were they enjoying when they knew we were powerless, except to yell? Later it struck me that the bullies represented the flaws of general education. Until the age of 16, schools were/are obliged to enroll all sorts of children without a conscience, the very deadliest. But is it sensible – or charitable – to dismiss general education? Today, schools seem about little more than preparing people to serve late capitalism, beginning with the cruel conduct of the schoolyard, and education policy-makers have acquiesced, ruling out the humanities for the most part, along with the humanist philosophy flowing from the liberal arts disciplines. And don’t we see children – boys and girls (we are now equalizing barbarism) – ultimately as fodder for wartime ambition?
As Nora sits alone, accepting her alienated status, she looks about as she hears an occasional cry. One day she walks toward the back of the yard, near the fieldstone wall that is one of the “playground’s” dominant characteristics. She sees Abel with the big bully Antoine, trying to put a plastic bag over the head of the dark-skinned boy Ismael. Abel is indeed now at a moral cul-de-sac, since the bag equals murder. Appalled, Nora rushes in, jumping on Abel’s back, the camera following tight. She shouts, then murmurs, her brother’s name as she puts her arms around him. He continues to wield the bag, but Antoine, the central monster (what will he do after this moment? Won’t his monstrousness be endless?), seems to go away. Abel pauses, then turns to embrace his sister. The love of the sibling seems to conquer in the final, tender moment, from which the camera cuts to blackness. We could say too that the vision, the “watching” of the female has won, but isn’t the victory tentative at best, since the vision seems exclusive to the sensitive Nora, Victoire and Clemence also capable at least of unfairness and bias?
Playground/Un Monde concerns itself with such essential things I can’t but see its creator, Laura Wandel, as one of our most formidable artists – and one instructed, so she has mentioned, by Haneke, Dumont, the Dardennes, the most important of our social chroniclers – that we must pay careful attention to what follows.
Christopher Sharrett is Professor Emeritus at Seton Hall University. He is a contributing editor to Film International.