Play: Cannes Review

A loaded racial incident based on events that happened in Sweden several years ago is festooned with too much formalistic baggage.

Writer-director Ruben Ostlund's third feature -- about a loaded racial incident -- is based on events that happened in Sweden several years ago.

A loaded racial incident based on events that happened in Sweden several years ago is festooned with too much formalistic baggage in Play. Writer-director Ruben Ostlund, in his third feature, after The Guitar Mongoloid and Involuntary, triggers immediate interest in this provocative drama by his use of numerous long takes and often fixed camera positions. But the ultimate effect of his studied techniques is more restricting than beneficial, which, combined with a protracted running time, faintly self-righteous air and a perplexing, misguided coda, produces a sense of letdown at the end despite the strength of much that has come before. Some trimming of the more extraneous material would help, as the confrontational drama has some sales potential.

In the impressive, single-take opening scene, a slowly roving camera surveys the activity in a multi-story Gothenberg shopping mall, eventually coming to settle across the atrium upon some African immigrant boys who approach some local boys -- two are white, one is of Asian ancestry -- to ask to use one of their cell phones and shortly accuse one of them of having stolen it from one of their brothers; only a "short" trip to have the brother himself inspect the phone can settle the matter.

Thus begins a sort of forced march that turns into a long day's journey to nowhere, as the perpetrators prolong the scam at their own whim, leading their intimidated victims to strange parts of town, taking them on trams and busses and, eventually, to the countryside, where things finally come to a head.

At its core, Play deals with each group's mindset about race and how they deal with it. Knowing that they appear threatening and certain that the native boys -- of which there are only three, as opposed to five blacks -- will be "nice" so as not to offend members of a minority group, the blacks take advantage of their victims' good will; even when pushed, the latter will scarcely talk back at the con artists. Another layer plays with the blacks reversing the blame for the whole incident onto the their captives, as when one says, "Anyone dumb enough to show his cell phone to five black guys deserves whatever he gets."

Allegiances shift and power plays are attempted from time to time, but the blacks know they hold the stronger cards and basically lord it over the others all day. Ostlund tends to set a fixed perspective for every shot and has the players both enter and exit the frame at strategic moments and behave believably within it for long periods. It's a strategy that succeeds for a while but then pays diminishing returns by keeping the characters at such a remove.

The slow-motion story line is larded with other material of only glancing relevance to it. Some brief footage is devoted to elaborately dressed South American Indian street musicians, but foremost are cutaways to a train on which a mysterious wooden cradle has been left by unknown parties; the crew makes repeated requests for some passenger to claim it, but no one does. As a running gag, these snippets take on a humorous dimension that triggers the thought that it wouldn't have taken much the push the film to an entirely different level by playing it for absurdist comedy, with a result that might have been far more caustic and entertaining. But the politically earnest Ostlund would likely never countenanced such a thing.

Instead of supplying closing information that the real-life culprits, 12- to 14-year-olds, pulled off about 40 such scams about five years ago before being caught, Ostlund tacks on a multipart coda that reduces the value what he's so arduously constructed up to that point.

The control and color values of Marius Dybwad Brandrud's rich Red 4K camera cinematography is outstanding.
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Directors' Fortnight)
Sales: Coproduction Office
Production: Plattform, Coproduction Office, Parisienne de Production
Cast: Anas Abdirahman, Sebastian Blyckert, Yannick Diakite, Sebastian Hegmar, Abdiaziz Hilowle, Nana Manu, John Ortiz, Kevin Vaz
Director-screenwriter: Ruben Ostlund
Producers: Erik Hemmendorff, Philippe Bober
Director of photography: Marius Dybwad Brandrud
Production-costume designer: Pia Aleborg
Editors: Ruben Ostlund, Jacob Schulsinger
Music: Saunder Jurriaans, Daniel Bensi
Running time: 125 minutes