Playtime (1967)

Directed by Jacques Tati

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Watching Playtime is like playing a two hour game of Where’s Waldo?  The sets are big, the shots are wide, and Jacques Tati hated close ups, so the shots stay wide for long periods of time.  Instead of close ups or cross-cutting, Tati used sound to draw your attention to a particular part of the screen, and from what I’ve read, you need to see this movie a few times to really grasp how many visual gags there are in this film.

I’ve only watched it once, and I know I missed a lot.  This movie has very little plot, instead focusing on the setting, which Tati himself referred to as the star of the film.  Tati plays Monsieur Hulot, a clown-ish figure who he played in multiple films.  Hulot, a mostly silent man even if the world and film around him is full of noise, is like Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, struggling to maneuver around an environment in a way that makes him the butt of the joke but which also poses greater questions about the world of the film.

Like Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936), Playtime focuses on the confounding modernity of Paris.  This might be the only Parisian film I can think of that nearly avoids any depiction of the Eiffel Tower or the Champs-Elysees and certainly the Seine.  It’s a movie about Paris that could be set anywhere in the world, and that’s precisely the point.

Tati shot this film on what was called “Tativille,” a constructed city that cost many millions of dollars and about which Tati himself said, “the cost of building the set was no greater than what it would have cost to have hired Elizabeth Taylor or Sophia Loren for the leading role.”  The star of this film is this constructed setting, so much so that even the de facto star of the film, Monsieur Hulot, disappears from the story for large chunks of time, popping back in every now and then.

This decision to focus less on Hulot angered certain audiences, from what I can tell, and it’s one of the reasons this film, while greatly respected and considered the 71st greatest film of all time by the French publication Cahiers du Cinema, was a financial failure, forcing Tati to go into bankruptcy.  Another reason for this failure was that Tati insisted on shooting on 70mm film so that you could notice all the detail and characters in his wide shots since he refused to cut to close ups.  Tati was so committed to the 70mm film that he refused to make a 35mm print, meaning that many theaters were unable to accommodate the film.

Based on what I’ve described already, Tati was a purist.  His films (at this time I’ve only seen this and 1958’s Mon Oncle) are a bit challenging by today’s standards, but he has a clear vision and follows through with it.  Francois Truffaut said about this film that it ‘came from another planet.’

Even if we recognize certain screwball elements of the story, Playtime isn’t a film that caters to you.  I’d like to link to a scene from this film and compare it to a Chaplin or Woody Allen film to demonstrate how the latter comedians’ visual gags dominate the shot while Tati’s visual gags almost blend into the background, but I’m pretty sure I missed most of his jokes.  There are some obvious and charming jokes, such as when a doorman has to mime opening a glass door which Hulot shattered, and the restaurant guests don’t bat an eye, unable to realize that the door isn’t even there.  And there are some amusing jokes meant to illustrate the complexity of modern technology ostensibly put in place to make our lives easier.  There are large panels of buttons that look like the interior of a cockpit but which serve a small purpose, like letting a man know that he has a visitor or calling an elevator.

The point, again much like Modern Times, is that the new technology makes our lives harder than they need to be.  But Hulot is the only character we really see show any confusion in this environment.  He’s the one who frequently gets lost in the maze of an office building or has a hard time getting from point A to point B.  We are meant to laugh at his struggle while understanding why he’s struggling in the first place.  “Tativille,” meant to be a distorted version of modern Paris, looks strange to us but just recognizable enough to be our world.  The streets are the same, the offices are similar, but everything is just a little sleeker, with more straight lines and sharp edges.  Even the road lines move in straight lines, jutting to the right when a lane moves rather than curving.

Everyone else seems to move through this world with ease, and the effects is that it felt like I was watching something set in a Dr. Seuss story.  The characters don’t realize how impersonal their lives have become and how artificial their world feels.  Part of this effect is created by Tati using literal cardboard cut outs of people to fill out a scene.  Though I didn’t notice it directly, I have to assume, on some level, I noticed how little they were moving, such as in this scene:

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Those characters look trapped, but they don’t know it.  The joke is that we are those characters, and hopefully this film gives us enough self-awareness to realize it.

A film like this, by ridiculing a world we live in, where all the beautiful uniqueness and imperfections are blasted away like with a high-powered hose, shows us where we’re headed, and it’s hard for that to not feel almost scathing.  But at the same time, Playtime gives us some hope.

The film moves between a series of sequences, often marked by a central theme or recurring visual gag, and we spend most of the time in a restaurant that slowly falls apart over the course of the night.  As the restaurant falls apart, the people seem to throw their hands in the air and celebrate.  It doesn’t matter if the technology fails you, you can still have a good time.  At this point the film shifts from a world where we depend on this absurd modern technology to a world where we’re happier without it.

Philip Kemp, a film critic, said that Playtime shows, “how the curve comes to reassert itself over the straight line… at the beginning of the film, people walk in straight lines and turn on right angles. Only working-class construction workers and two music-loving teenagers move in a curvaceous and naturally human way. Some of this robotlike behavior begins to loosen in the restaurant scene near the end of the film, as the participants set aside their assigned roles and learn to enjoy themselves after a plague of opening-night disasters.”

Human nature wins out, in a way.  When you take a step back, this film feels like ivy that growing over jail cell bars.  And this, I think, is beautiful and poetic, and I can now understand why this film is so highly regarded, but at the same time, I had a lot of trouble sitting through this movie.

Playtime runs just over two hours, and the central joke to the film, that modern Paris is confusing and hard to navigate, is made clear very early on.  The jokes don’t seem to build on each other, they just make way for another charming, albeit slightly repetitive joke.  Monsieur Hulot gets lost multiple times, and after a few minutes, you get the joke.

Perhaps it’s that you have to be hit over the head with this joke and with this world to feel the weight of what Tati is trying to say, much like in the pie eating scene of A Ghost Story, but at some point, this all felt like an exercise for Tati to show off his constructed world of Tativille.  This location certainly is impressive, and I’d like to know more about it, (apparently it had working elevators, streets, a power plant, etc.), but the film seemed to be in service of its ‘star,’ like a Hollywood movie that hires a screenwriter and director to satisfy its $20 million leading man.

Is the city supposed to be awe-inspiring?  To me it is, even if it made be a little uncomfortable in all its Dr. Seuss-like nature, but it’s also supposed to be a sign of what our world could be like if we’re not careful.  It’s at once a spectacle and a warning.

So Jacques Tati’s Playtime is one of those movies that could only get better with a second viewing but which I’m not ready to watch again.  It’s a puzzle, but it’s a puzzle to be enjoyed if you give yourself time, kind of like Game of Thrones.  It’s daunting to start now, seven seasons behind, but it’s worth it if you let yourself dive in.  I really just want to look at still frames of Playtime and dissect what’s going on in each scene.  I think it’s a film that’s worthy of extensive analysis and an investigation into a given scene, but as a whole it drags on a little long.  It’s charm is easy to see, but it’s few and far between, at least, again, on a first viewing.

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