There’s no shortage of films that deal with the concept of childhood bullying, but very few document experiences that will ring true to anybody who has been through it. In recent years, bullying has been depicted in film almost exclusively as an online phenomenon, with all attempts to show the harrowing effects of cyberbullying falling flat due to how out of touch filmmakers are from the way young people use social media. Playground is the most powerful film recently made about the subject because it understands that for most children, bullying is still something they will only encounter in a physical space – and few environments are more oppressive than the elementary school where the entirety of Laura Wandel’s directorial debut takes place.

Image © Lumiere, Tandem Films 

Shot with the intensity of a war drama at a child’s height, Un Monde follows Nora (Maya Vanderbeque), a seven year old girl who is just starting elementary school. We first see her in floods of tears, unable to pull away from her stay-at-home dad (Karim Leklou) at the gates, who assures her everything will be fine. It’s soon very clear why she’s reluctant to start, as her older brother Abel (Günter Duret) is mercilessly bullied, both physically and psychologically, by other older children. He insists she keep it a secret from teachers and her father, but after seeing bullies hold his head down the toilet, she can no longer to keep it to herself. This is when the dynamic shifts, and she starts to become a pariah in her own class due to being related to a bullied kid. Meanwhile, Abel’s own behaviour starts to shift as he no longer wants to be the school’s punching bag.

Image © Lumiere, Tandem Films 

Working with cinematographer Frédéric Noirhomme, Wandel visualises the drama with a shallow depth of field, blurring everything beyond Nora’s immediate field of vision. It’s one of the few films on the subject that aims to explore the subject from an actual child’s perspective, and not what an out of touch adult would imagine it to be. The fact that a lot of the most harrowing action is offscreen and depicted with a lack of focus helps keep the drama non-sensationalised, even if it does remain harrowing. The camera stays entirely at Nora’s height throughout, which does often lead to some clear logistical difficulties; one sequence where the children’s father appears at the school gate has to feature Nora climbing a fence to speak directly with him, the visual gimmick proving far from seamless even if it is otherwise utilised exceptionally. The Charlie Brown approach to keeping adults out of frame is the ideal way of depicting how children perceive and are affected by bullying – it can just often create difficulties when adults are still integral to the narrative itself.

Image © Lumiere, Tandem Films 

In the film’s later stages, Wandel (who also wrote the film’s screenplay) examines the topic from a more intriguing angle, exploring how bullied kids would be provoked to do the same so they could no longer be the victim. The director’s masterstroke is viewing this entirely from a secondary perspective, with Nora feeling the effects of her brother’s victimisation and later actions without becoming a victim of bullying herself. It’s in these stages that the film becomes hardest to watch, with violent acts against innocent children depicted in stark close up once Nora becomes involved in trying to stop it. Wandel’s approach to the subject matter never becomes exploitative, nor does it feel like a deliberately gruelling arthouse exercise in misery. Instead, it feels harrowing precisely because, for so many former victims of bullying, this is a lived experience depicted onscreen in unsparing detail. 

Un Monde is a tough, uncompromising watch, even at a relatively brisk 72 minutes. It’s one of the year’s boldest and best directorial debuts, in addition to being one of the most incisive films about how children experience bullying yet made.

Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Written by Alistair Ryder

View of the Arts is a British online publication that chiefly deals with films, music, arts and fashion, with an emphasis on the Asian entertainment industry. We are hoping our audience will grow with us as we begin to explore new platforms such as K-pop, and continue to dive into the talented and ever-growing scene of film, arts and fashion, worldwide.

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