One night in a convenience store in Lausanne, Switzerland, a father loses patience with his young daughter, Lola, who keeps trying to put a certain package of goodies into the basket. When he objects, she throws a fit and runs away, which escalates into a full-blown tantrum, complete with bystanders' broken jars and a slap.
The slap draws the attention of other shoppers, one of which threatens to report the father for child abuse. Soon the incident becomes an argument, which draws in other people in the shop. One fight leads to another, and soon the whole thing blows up into a major outburst in the neighborhood.
Writer-director Christophe M. Saber's sharp, witty short files itself under the category of comedy, but its humor isn't based on punchlines or pratfalls. Instead, it mines a certain vein of ironic social observation, capturing a pressure cooker of underlying societal and personal tensions that come boiling to the surface to unpredictable effect.
The ensemble of characters is especially large for a short, and they all function less on the level of psychological depth and more as social types. The story doesn't get deep inside any one character's head, instead, focusing on the interactions between them.
To this end, the acting overall is especially skilled, able to evoke the archetypes that make up this particular slice of Swiss society -- a harried father, a well-to-do wealthy couple, Arab immigrants, "native" Europeans -- while seeming specific and believable. The writing is especially skilled at injecting how certain social attitudes and sentiments in Swiss society underlie how people talk to and treat one another, leading to conflicts that on the surface seem about one thing and yet are about something else entirely.
Capturing this cauldron of types as they rub up against one another in an increasingly volatile space is no mean feat, but the energetic documentary-style camerawork -- very much like one-camera improv-style television comedies like Arrested Development -- tracks the small moments that reveal opposing attitudes and conflicts between the characters, all while keeping the action brisk and well-paced.
Where the storytelling excels, though, is capturing how these tensions shape-shift and transmit across lines like a contagion. A father's irritation sparks a broken jar, a slap and a child's cry, which then draws the attention of a nosy wealthy woman, whose sparks the enmity of the mother and wife who comes in, irritated by her husband.
By the time all the action moves outside, the carefully constructed edifice of tension and anger is set to erupt with one careless word or gesture -- and erupt it does, in an unforgettable, exuberantly fractious melee that must be seen to be believed.
"Discipline" is both tense to watch, with all its arguing, and yet mordantly funny, especially as we watch underlying conflict and tension erupt into increasingly outlandish and yet wholly believable petty human behavior. Watching this panorama of conflict spill out across the screen at the film's end is both a hilarious, almost farcical sight. Yet it also suggests that the edifice that makes up social order is held together by a thin, fragile pretense of civility, one that is easily punctured by prejudices and perspectives about others not like us.
The film is ambivalent about whether or not humanity can transcend such facile tribalism, especially considering how easily we can allow our irritations to lose control and transform into full-blown meltdowns -- not unlike children.