THE BIG BOYS’ PLAYGROUND: An Enticing & Mesmerising Solution
The Big Boys' Playground by Guillaume Lion paints rock climbing as a finely detailed, balanced, and makes the sport that more intriguing.
I first saw The Big Boys’ Playground (or La Cour Des Grands, to give it its original title) at the Wales International Documentary Festival. About a couple of driven climbers, I was struck by the way it got inside their heads and depicted climbing not as the dangerous, adrenaline fueled activity we believe it to but as a puzzle, an equation with a solution that those that climb are intent on finding. Made by Guillaume Lion, the film is about his friend Stéphane Hanssens, Stéphane’s girlfriend Alizée Dufraisse and their winter climbing in Siurana, Catalonia.
A Puzzle To Be Solved
Known primarily for his expeditions Stéphane seeks to improve his climbing skills, and in this film, takes on some of the hardest routes in an area of Siurana known as El Pati (Catalan for ‘the playground’). Girlfriend Alizée is already a very successful climber and with the aid of Alizée’s father (and coach) Philippe and friend and psychologist Olivier Rouquette (also the film’s narrator), the two take on some of El Pati’s most difficult climbs.
What sets The Big Boys’ Playground apart from other films about climbing is that it does not focus on the danger element, or the fear, or injury, or anything else that has made similar films of the past decade succeed. Instead, it looks at climbing as more of an intellectual puzzle, one with moves and timings, and precision. Reminiscent of a chess game, through Lion’s camera climbing is thoughtful, tactical, and for those watching, an incredibly mesmerizing, puzzle.
This is only emphasized by the keen camera work that gets up close to Stéphane and Alizée as they consider handholds, knee placement and the sway of their bodies. Which would lead you to think that this is a very physical sport, and it is, but then it’s so much more. Olivier’s training and guiding voiceover reminds Stéphane and Alizée, but also us, that beyond physicality and mathematics, climbing is an emotional task. Under pressure, mistakes can be made; training the mind to focus on the process and the overall experience will not necessarily reap greater rewards but it will ensure a more positive mindset.
While Olivier’s words seem to be about rock climbing, they are in a way about so much more. In this sense the climbing acts as a metaphor, it’s not about getting to the top and succeeding, it’s about the process. Recognizing yourself and taking moments to understand where you are, are good lessons for life as well as rock climbing. But also, you can’t help but feel, as Lion’s camera tracks Stéphane and Alizée’s dog, and their romantic stolen moments together, that this film is trying to tell us that while rock climbing is very important to the two, there is still more to life than getting to the top.
This film has a lot to say about rock climbing and, in a way, life itself. But it is also, in and of itself, a very entertaining film. Olivier’s words are intriguing and melodic, Stéphane, Alizée and their friends are interesting, passionate people, while Lion’s camera is laid-back with editing on point, scratching out humor from the endless swearing and shouting of the disappointed climbers. Additionally Camille Taver’s original music, a piano score reminiscent of racing through Paris in the films of the French New Wave is delightfully entertaining and lightens what is sometimes a serious and sombre atmosphere.
In fact my only argument with this film is that I wasn’t always completely clear about what was being climbed and why it was important, even with the rather excellent graphical inter-titles that introduced each climb. However, I don’t think this is the fault of the film but merely the way things are. The climbers themselves may swear and shout when they don’t succeed, but they don’t start each climb with ‘this will be the one’ and when they reach the top they don’t hoot with celebration. Here, there is no start and end, just one endless puzzle, and when they have it figured out they simply relax.
The Big Boys’ Playground is an incredibly mesmerizing film. While it doesn’t have the shock and awe of other climbing films it has all the detail and understanding. It paints rock climbing as a finely detailed, balanced sport, and makes it that much more intriguing. Stéphane, Alizée and their friends are fascinating to watch. Lion has done an excellent job in both filming and editing, while Olivier Rouquette’s inclusion and narration brings an extra depth of worldliness.
If that wasn’t enough Camille Taver’s music is a wonderful, well-thought out addition to what is already a fantastic film. And while I can’t guarantee that you’ll be able to see this film in the future, I do hope you will given the chance.
Have you seen The Big Boys’ Playground? Tell us you thoughts in the comments below!
The Big Boys’ Playground is currently making its way into film festivals.
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