An emerging subtheme at this year’s Sundance Film Festival is the penetrating examination of the dynamics between men and women. Susanna Fogel’s “Cat Person” is an adaptation of Kristen Roupenian’s New York tale of differing perspectives on a date gone wrong. Nicole Newnham’s documentary “The Disappearance of Shere Hite” looks at the responses to the noted author and sex researcher.
Opening Friday as part of the festival’s American drama competition, “Fair Play” is writer-director Chloe Domont’s feature film debut, told in a graceful, seductive style that keeps audiences both baffled and drawn in. excited and disoriented. . The film was made under Rian Johnson and Ram Bergman’s T-Street production banner and stars Phoebe Dynevor (“Bridgerton”) and Alden Ehrenreich (“Solo: A Star Wars Story,” “Rules Don’t Apply”) as Alice and Luke, both employed at a highly competitive New York financial firm. When Alice gets a promotion that Luke thought would be hers, their relationship begins to unravel. When Alice assumes her new position, Luke feels like he’s being left behind and they’re both pushed to the limits of what they can handle.
Growing up in Studio City, Domont went to New York City to attend film school and began his career there before moving back to Los Angeles. His short films “Haze” and “All Good Things” were screened at numerous festivals and he also wrote and directed the series “Ballers” and directed episodes of “Billions”.
Domont had started writing “Fair Play” before getting the job on “Billions,” which also takes place in the New York financial industry. She had long been interested in that world through movies like “Wall Street” and “Working Girl” and she found it to be a suitable setting for her own story.
“I was interested in something that has a lot at stake,” Domont said. “I was interested in how the toxicity of a work environment feeds the toxicity of a relationship and vice versa.”
He received a video call just days before the world premiere at Sundance of “Fair Play” to discuss the film.
Considering that the world of finance is often seen as a hyper-masculine environment, what made you want to use that environment to explore the dynamics of relationships between men and women?
Well, #MeToo never made it into the world of finance in the first place. Those guys were never held accountable for anything, because money and power, at that level, you can’t touch those people. And women are forced to play ugly to survive in that kind of world and with those kinds of men. What they have to sacrifice of themselves to make their way in that world, that was important to the story I wanted to tell.
Was this a challenge to cast? How did you get to Phoebe and Alden?
Emily is a rising star in the world of finance and I thought it would be exciting to cast a rising star. And Phoebe coming out of “Bridgerton” had that buzz to her. But what was really exciting is that she hadn’t done anything like this. And that excites me about the casting. I think everyone we’ve cast for this film has never done anything like this before.
In terms of Phoebe’s qualities, she’s so present, she’s so in tune with the moment, that’s really her greatest strength. She’s really listening, she’s really reacting. That’s a key factor with any great performance. There’s a warmth to her, too, and a vulnerability, but also a fierceness, and more importantly, an untapped fury that I wanted out of her.
But I always knew that the character of Luke was going to need a really confident man to play that level of insecurity. Because a male actor who is insecure in himself might feel insecure about going to those unsafe places. So he knew that whoever he chose had to be very confident, he had to be comfortable in his own skin, with who they are. And that was Alden. He just dove into those places head first without hesitation.
As the movie unfolds, the point of view of the story really fractures, the perspective seems to shift so that it becomes less safe for the viewer who you’re with. What was it that made you want to tell the story that way?
I’m not interested in telling black and white stories, where you’re definitely with some character and you’re definitely against another character. I don’t feel like that’s realistic either. Luke, in terms of his character, there’s a lot that he’s struggling with. He loves Emily for her ambition, her drive, and her intelligence, but he also can’t help but feel threatened by the very things he loves about her. And that doesn’t make him a bad guy.
And it was important for me to lean into that: he’s not a bad guy. He’s struggling with something that I don’t think is his fault. It’s the way he was raised, the way he was conditioned, the way he was wired. … I think this is a systemic social problem. For the most part, society only shows an image of masculinity and an image of success for straight men. And if they don’t fit into that, they’re made to feel like failures.
I really started writing from a place of anger. But the more I developed it, the deeper I got into the character of him, the more I realized that he was a tragedy on both sides. … Luke chooses a destructive path because he sees no other way out of his pain.
The last few scenes in particular get very complex regarding the dynamics of their relationship, who is to blame, who pushes and triggers what happens between them. Was it difficult for you to modulate, to maintain that ambiguity, whether in writing or directing Phoebe and Alden?
[The characters] they are doing the best they can. They’re both in a lot of pain, and they’re reacting to that pain that neither of them knows how to handle, and worse than that, they don’t know how to talk about it. And so they start working on it in all the wrong ways. In many ways, this film shows the repercussions of what happens when these issues are silenced.
No person will walk out of the movie feeling the same way about the characters at any given moment. It’s going to be so specific to who they are in their own personal experiences. Some people will come out and be with her for the second half of the movie; some people will go out and be with him. A lot of people will go out and be around, and I think it’s really specific to who they are. For me, I was trying to lean into empathy the whole time.
You are simply not equipped to deal with your pain and with an outcome you don’t know. And the same with her. I think the movie really shows the problems when women walk on eggshells trying to protect the male ego. Neither one of them really knows how to get through it in a healthy way. And that’s what’s human about it. That’s what excited me about it. That is what intensifies the drama and conflict.
Because of the ways in which he rejects clear answers and keeps the audience baffled, are you ready for people to get upset about this?
Oh yeah. I hope this movie starts conversations. I hope it starts discussions. And it would be great if people were fighting over this movie in the parking lot. I’m not here to make safe movies. I’m here to stir the pot. And I’m interested in why people are angry about it, why people get upset about it. I’m curious to see what that says about them. I think people will first get upset that she’s not a victim, and I’m not interested in keeping women in this victimization box. That’s not the character. The character is here to get his. I’m sure people are going to be upset about that, and I think that’s essential for the kind of film I made.
I know you haven’t had a chance to see them, but there are a few other movies on the Sundance show—movies like “Cat Person” and “The Disappearance of Shere Hite”—that also have a lot to do with the different perspectives of men and women. and the often unbridgeable gap between how they view certain situations. Why do you find the dynamics between men and women in heterosexual relationships such fertile ground for exploration?
No matter how much progress we’ve made, we still can’t understand each other. I don’t think men and women can. There are a lot of things that get in the way of that. And I think given the current climate we’re in, it’s made it a little bit worse because we’re all afraid to talk about things that we might feel are uncomfortable or not kosher. And instead of owning that and being honest about it, we’re just pushing it down. Also, this film for me was about taking into account a lot of unresolved feelings that I had in my own personal experiences with these kinds of dynamics.
I was in a relationship with someone who was threatened by me and threatened by who I was and what I wanted out of life. And instead of being able to talk about it, the only way I knew how to deal with it was to play small in a desperate attempt to protect the relationship. It was never something that either of us could talk about because we would never want to admit that the dynamic was real. We both support each other. We are both attracted to each other because of who we are. But at the same time, there were certain things that were rotting in the center. So for me, it’s just sounding the alarm about something that I think shouldn’t be normalized. To say what for so long had been something very unsayable to me.