Reviewer: Chris Haydon
Director: Bartosz Kowalski
Starring: Michalina Świstuń, Nicolas Przygoda, Przemysław Baliński, Patryk Świderski & Paweł Brandys
Release Date: Currently Pending (UK)
The unfathomable senselessness of murder has long fuelled European cinema. The great Krzysztof Kieślowski expertly handled the savage insanity in his 1988 masterpiece A Short Film About Killing, and Austrian auteur Michael Haneke – this author’s favourite filmmaker – has captured it like no other. Once you’ve seen Benny’s Video (1992) and Funny Games (1997), there’s no going back…
In 2016, debutant director Bartosz Kowalski enters himself into these challenging waters with his First Feature Competition entry at the BFI London Film Festival: Playground. Undoubtedly influenced, well, rather mimicking, Haneke and Antonio Campos, he tells a tale of the last day before the summer break at a Polish school; a day which starts out routinely before spiralling desperately out of control.
And out of control is apt for every cinematic development of Playground. As we push on through the short yet seemingly prolonged 82 minute duration, a sense of focus, value and even decorum quickly begins to diminish. This is a unequivocally horrible, unmistakably grotesque film that lacks the thematic restraint and nuance of Haneke, and the earthy composition of Campos. It is fantastically indulgent; simply bathing in the unspeakable sickness of a final act which will both enrage and distress. It is the first title not in the English language in 2016 which has made this critic physically and emotionally angry.
Kowalski’s picture starts out slow – well, the whole damn thing is slow – but at least somewhat absorbing. We meet twelve year-old Gabrysia (Świstuń); a socially awkward girl from a privileged family who knows today is her last chance to tell bequiffed Szymek (Przygoda) that she’s fallen for him. She starts her day with a shower, before applying makeup, getting dressed and swallowing a mug full of boiling water…from here we are introduced to the product of her fascination who is caring for his heavily disabled father. Meanwhile Czarek (Baliński) gets his morning underway by shaving his head bare and tormenting a stray dog with a sackful of butcher’s meat. The three individuals begin to share space and narrative relevance once they arrive at school.
Gabrysia invites Szymek to meet her following assembly and class at the ruins behind the schoolyard. She has been informed by the ‘it-girl’ on how to convey her feelings, and do so with visual sexuality; unbutton your shirt, look with intent, flick your ponytail and flutter your eyelashes. Meanwhile Szymek and Czarek have other ideas. Once the meeting goes horribly awry, the twosome begin to viciously harass and probe the young girl; filming on a mobile phone as they force her to cry and demand she removes her clothes and lay with them. Kowalski’s intention is to make such a scene deeply distressing, and in this single instance he succeeds, but it’s where the film ventures afterwards which condemns it to the depths of no-return.
Following the appalling, sexually aggressive attack on Gabrysia, the duo head to a shopping mall to play some video games. Unashamedly plagiarising truthful accounts, Kowalski drastically switches up his story and decides to create a Jamie Bulger reconstruction. Seriously. Remember the infamous 1993 case in which Robert Thompson and Jon Venables kidnapped the three year-old in broad daylight, before subjecting him to sustained, repeated torture – both physical and sexual – finally placing his lifeless body onto a railway track for a passing train to destroy the evidence? Yeah, that’s what happens in Playground, and it is utterly disgusting.
Copying Haneke AGAIN, Kowalski holds us in a static frame as the boys repeatedly kick an infant in the face, bludgeon him with brick and stone, jump on his tiny frame and take humorous pictures of his remains. Oh, and we can’t forget about the train. Of course this extended some-thirteen minute sequence is supposed to be horrible, because you know, largely speaking humans aren’t all that keen on child-killing…but it is the unrelenting lack of thematic and tonal compassion which makes Playground inexcusable.
A great filmmaker would be reserved; showing some of the unspeakable horror, and then letting the harrowing sounds of abuse fill the air as we linger on the sparseness of the surrounding fields, the gentle rumble of the railway track. A great filmmaker understands that less is more; that the imagination is far more sordid and complex than a collection of cells and frames. But Kowalski is not a great filmmaker, he is an unfathomably terrible one; repulsive, fraudulent and downright insidious.
Film festivals always serve up something memorable and unexpected, and as critics, we always hope that comes in the form of a pleasant surprise. Suffice to say, Playground was not. This nightmarish and immeasurably ugly drama is a corrosive stain on the First Feature Competition strand, and indeed one’s memory.