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Newsletter: The Foul Truth At The Heart Of Fair Play

OTTplay's critic Ishita Sengupta reports on the buzziest titles from Sundance 2023. Here: Fair Play.

Newsletter: The Foul Truth At The Heart Of Fair Play
Still from Fair Play. Sundance Film Festival
  • Rohini Nair

Last Updated: 06.09 AM, Jan 25, 2023

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CHLOE DOMONT'S Fair Play opens with a bit of foreshadowing that is immensely sexy and, in hindsight, downright brilliant. A madly-in-love couple, attending a wedding, get into a loo and start making out. He goes down on her and by the time he kisses her again, there is blood on his mouth. Her olive satin dress is stained and so is his silk shirt. Enraptured by the headiness of the moment, they both break into a giggle. Would his mother have a tampon, she asks. And then her eyes fall on an object on the floor — a ring. With blood all over their clothes, he goes down again. This time to propose. She says yes. When they escape from the window, it seems like they are fleeing a crime scene. Except, both have blood on their hands. A murder has been committed, we just don’t know who did it.

Emily (Phoebe Dynevor) and Luke (Alden Ehrenreich) are financial analysts working at a ruthless New York-based hedge fund. Company policy dictates they can’t get into a relationship. News of their engagement cannot be shared till it can be announced. To do so, they both need to climb up the corporate ladder. A position suddenly opens up. A senior employee is let go and rumours suggest that Luke will be promoted. “How did I get so lucky?” he asks. At midnight, while they are both lying down together, Emily gets a call from her boss. One of them has been promoted, but it’s not him.

ALL'S FAIR IN LOVE & THE GENDER WAR
Still from Fair Play. Sundance Film Festival
Still from Fair Play. Sundance Film Festival

FOR HER EXPLOSIVE feature debut, Domont takes the tropes of a clandestine workplace romance and transforms it into a horrid financial thriller, all the while designing it as a psychological puzzle. It is fascinating the way she uncovers the fragility of gender dynamics by taking one gentle narrative swerve. Had Luke been promoted we would be looking at a perfect love story. But with Emily getting her own chamber, their relationship gets rattled, revealing its broken bones. When she gets the news, the first thing she does is apologise to him. She’s beset with guilt over her success.

The story from here feels expected given how familiar the moment is. Women, after all, have been traditionally trained to shrink their success and not celebrate it. Yet, Domont is not interested in telling a didactic tale. There is no moral centre here no matter how hard you look. Luke is not a monster. On receiving the news, he says he is proud of her. But something in him snaps. It doesn’t help that he sits surrounded with men who casually assume Emily has slept her way to the top. On her part, she participates in the boys’ locker room talks. She has worked hard to reach here and she is unwilling to buckle down.

With astuteness and clarity, Domont takes Fair Play to unexpected places, refusing to halt to give us a breather. The pacing is so incredible that it mimics the emotional claustrophobia of a chamber drama. The film is not keen on taking sides. What it is keen on though, is to showcase the toxicity of power and its fluidity in an arrangement where the dominance shifts with nauseating speed. It is intent to underline how well-meaning condescension is often the subtext in narratives of men championing their female partner. And that equality of love, in a heteronormative arrangement, is reliant on unequal gender politics.

Cinematographer Menno Mans shoots the characters in tight close-ups, accelerating the taut tension embedded in their relationship. It helps that the film is headlined by two actors in terrific form that not just impedes a linear reading but also adds to the ambivalence the film goes for. The bathroom scene at the beginning of the film is replicated in a grimmer context towards the end and it’s riveting how the body language of both the actors shift. Dynevor weaponises the fragility of her frame to astounding heights. And it is a marvel the way Ehrenreich adapts to his evolving character landscape. When Fair Play opens, he comes across as a man genuinely in love and lucky to be in it. As the film unfolds and he witnesses Emily’s success, his shoulder droops, his glance changes. He looks like a different man — till he resembles a man all women know of.

In her provocative outing, Domont takes pointed jabs at social conditioning and entitlement, hurtling towards a conclusion where the line between ego and empowerment gets all but blurred. There is blood on the floor again, but it never felt this satisfying.

Fair Play has been acquired by Netflix in a $20 million deal.

***

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