Playtime: Tati celebrates human values but needed machine values to make it

 
Jacques Tati, “Playtime”, Madman Cinema / The AV Channel, DVD  (1967)
 
 
Said to have been the most expensive movie made in France at the time of its release involving the construction of an elaborate set over nine years that included an airport terminal, city streets with a multi-lane traffic roundabout, various office and other high-rise buildings, and the film itself taking three years to make in grand 70mm format, “Playtime” really is one of a kind, never to be replicated, at least not in these economically strait-jacketed times. Only Hollywood these days might have the money to finance a remake should a suitably fruitcake obsessive director be up to the job – hmm, why do I think of James Cameron as the man to do it? – but with MGM Studios facing bankruptcy at this time of writing, even a pale replica now appears impossible. All the more reason to treasure “Playtime” in spite of its near unwatchableness for most people.
 
“Playtime” plays like a satirical comedy and superficially in parts it resembles old silent film comedies starring Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. Visual gags abound and it’s necessary to view the film at least twice to catch most of them. The opening scenes in the movie look as if they’re occurring in a hospital but the building turns out to be an airport terminal. Main character Monsieur Hulot (director Tati himself), if we can call him that – he features in less than half the film – gets caught up in various slapstick situations, many of them featuring no dialogue or dialogue-as-background. Viewing the movie twice myself though, I sense a fairly serious and sometimes dark message about the place of humans and humanity in a world ruled by rationality and cold intellect as evidenced in the architecture, layouts and technology of 1960s Paris. At first we see people dwarfed and directed by their surroundings – they move in straight lines, they get tricked by walls or doors of near-invisible glass, they mistake a lampshade holder for a bus pole – but as “Playtime” progresses, the failings of an environment governed strictly by efficiency and rationality become obvious, and when technology fails as it does in the restaurant scenes, people react with spontaneity, warmth and reaching out to others.
 
No plot exists as such: the film is a snapshot of 1960s Paris over a 24-hour period, parts of which are experienced by Monsieur Hulot and a group of female American tourists of whom one young woman, Barbara, is always lagging behind the others for one reason or another (one of several ongoing jokes in the film). The film easily divides into seven segments, depending on where the camera is focussed: first up is the airline terminal segment where the tourist group first arrives. Much action takes place in longshot, forcing viewers to look everywhere over the screen to catch all the activity. The second segment takes place in an office building: Hulot has a meeting with an official and spends most of his time either ill at ease with the office chairs, trying to find the official or getting lost in the building. We get a good view of the impersonal style of the office building: people work in office cubicles that all look the same and are laid out in ways that resemble a geometrical maze; meetings take place in glass-walled areas that supposedly preserve privacy inside and out; and Hulot and the official alike are baffled by the building’s spacious dimensions and geometry as they continually miss each other.
 
Hulot stumbles from the second segment into the third which takes place in another look-alike office building that is holding a trade exhibition. Barbara’s tourist group visits this exhibition as well after Barbara is nearly left behind while trying to photograph a flower-seller. Hulot himself is mistaken for a thief who pilfers one exhibition’s publicity material for a silent-closing door but is quickly exonerated. In the meantime a lady in front of another exhibition demonstrates a household waste-bin cunningly disguised as an Ancient Greek relic; that might say something about Tati’s opinion of the modern world’s respect for history.
 
Hulot eventually leaves the building and catches a bus during evening peak hour. Commuters appear as comic conformist clones: they line up close together like segments of a centipede to catch a bus and hang onto a lampshade post instead of the bus railing. In one scene, four men dressed exactly alike enter four identical cars parked close together at much the same time and drive off, one after the other, in a perfectly timed sequence. When Hulot leaves the bus, he meets an old friend who drags him into his apartment and the apartment block where the friend resides is the focus of the film’s fourth segment. We see four families in the apartment block watching TV through their ceiling-to-floor windows and it’s obvious they’re all watching the same TV show. Because the TV sets are stuck into common walls, the families on the ground floor appear to be watching and reacting to each other: in a role reversal scene, a man strips his shirt off and the woman next door peers closely at her TV set at the same time as though seeing a peepshow. It’s a wonderful visual joke, plausible and implausible at the same time.
 
Most of the second half of the film is taken up with opening night of the newly refurbished Royal Gardens restaurant and there are numerous gags here. Several waiters prepare and season a dish repeatedly for a couple, only for that dish to be taken away to another table. One waiter forced to retire outside the restaurant after tearing his trousers on a chair finds himself lending out his jacket, tie and shoe to other waiters with similar accidents throughout the evening. A pillar placed in a high-traffic foyer proves a constant nuisance for waiters and customers alike. Part of the ceiling collapses, a glass door shatters, there are air-conditioning problems and the electricity supply goes erratic. Waiters aren’t always attentive and customers at the bar keep falling off their stools. As the night progresses and more disasters occur, everyone relaxes and starts making their own fun, dancing and singing along. Barbara appears at the piano, playing a tune (yes, the tourist group came to dinner) and meets Hulot who offers to buy her a gift.
 
The sixth and seventh segments take place during the bleary-eyed hours of the early morning when the restaurant closes and customers go home. In the drugstore segment, a couple of workers manage to siphon some free wine into their pipes (the plumbing sort of pipes, not the smoking sort) while the sales attendants are elsewhere. Hulot finds a gift and passes it onto Barbara, already late boarding her tourist bus, via an impromptu messenger. In the seventh segment, the focus is on morning peak hour traffic circulating around a multi-lane roundabout in slow, mechanical clockwork fashion.
 
Tati’s message about humanity and modernity appears optimistic – a machine-like society is apt to break down and humans released from such a society will re-discover warmth, creativity, spontaneity and connection – but offers nothing about how to change such a society permanently to something less grim. “Playtime” has a circular quality – it begins and ends with camera shots of blue sky with clouds – which suggests that the machine society and natural human warmth and spontaneity will always be at loggerheads. Why should that be?
 
Perhaps Tati himself wasn’t the appropriate person to offer a more human-based alternative: to make such a hugely expensive and elaborate film like “Playtime” with its huge and detailed sets and carefully choreographed action must surely demand a personality bordering on manic and obsessive if not tyrannical. Tati fans already know the film didn’t recoup its massive production costs and Tati was forced to declare bankruptcy and to sell his home. He must have had something of a love-hate affair with the modernist ideal to have made a series of films revolving around Hulot that focus on the French obsession with brutalist modern architecture that is often impractical and overscaled and on emulating American consumerism and pressure-cooker lifestyles. Technology wasn’t necessarily an issue: in a later film, “Trafic”, Hulot appears as an inventor driving his self-made car full of gadgets to an exhibition. Speaking of impractical and overscaled, “Playtime” is not exactly amenable to viewer comfort: filmed in epic 70mm with no close-ups or over-the-shoulder action, it is a BIG picture which dwarfs its human characters in scale and action, and with so much going on all at once, the film must be seen at least a few times in its full format to be fully understood and appreciated.
 
Yes that’s the paradox about “Playtime”: for a film that celebrates the playful human values of yesteryear, it had to embrace the values of machine-like precision, rationality and obsession with growth and massive scale that it gently derides just to get made.

Belle de Jour: Bunuel turns a trashy soap opera plot into rich satire

Luis Buñuel, “Belle de Jour” (1967)

It’s got a trashy premise – a rich doctor’s wife “plays” at being a prostitute for a few hours each day – but Buñuel turns the soap opera plot into a blackly humorous and tragic satire about the upper classes and their uneasy relationship with sex, power and control. Lead actor Catherine Deneuve plays Severine, recently married to Pierre Serizy (Jean Sorel) who works as a hospital specialist and who often brings much of his paperwork home, a situation that suits his young wife as she is sexually frigid with a secret history of childhood sexual abuse. We see her early on in the film with little to do at home (a maid does the housework) so she goes shopping a lot, walking around her neighbourhood a lot and having frequent migraines so she goes to bed early a lot. When asleep Severine has strange dreams about being sexually humiliated and beaten by her husband and various working-class ruffians.

Pierre and Severine have a mutual friend Husson (Michel Piccoli) who is attracted to Severine and who one day mentions to her the address of a discreet high-class brothel where a middle-class housewife Severine knows as a casual acquaintance happens to work. Initially Severine is repelled by the idea but, curious as to whether working as a prostitute might remedy her sexual frigidity and perhaps make her a “normal” sexually functioning woman, she approaches the brothel madame, Anais (Genevieve Page), who agrees to take her on as a part-time prostitute under the pseudonym Belle de Jour.

After a couple of hesitant starts, Severine starts to enjoy her work and quickly becomes a favourite with Madame Anais and the various wealthy clients who exhibit all kinds of sexual fetishes, including whipping, incest and necrophilia. Severine’s weird sexual dreams gradually cease and she starts to become more loving and intimate with her workaholic husband who soon becomes the one looking for excuses for avoiding sex. However one day two gangsters turn up at Madame Anais’s brothel and the younger of the two, Marcel (Pierre Clementi), quickly becomes obsessed with Severine. Severine herself is attracted to Marcel as he fulfills her fantasies of being abused by disreputable or lower-class men but is forced to leave the brothel when Husson turns up and sees her there. Nevertheless Marcel uncovers her identity and where she lives and Severine is unable to prevent and avoid the clash of her separate identities and existences as Belle de Jour and Severine Serizy and their devastating consequences.

For a movie with a threadbare and unrealistic soap opera plot, “Belle de Jour” can be moving due to its rich detail and the various issues and themes that lurk in the background. Identity and control are major themes: Severine already is adept at hiding her sexual fears and fantasy life from hubby Pierre who thinks she is just shy and child-like and treats her accordingly, so it’s not hard for her to hide her other identity as Belle de Jour from him. However she has no control over Husson and Marcel who uncover her double life. Severine’s reaction to control and being controlled is complicated: the movie hints at a past history of sexual violence; she allows her husband to treat her like a pet; she is submissive to Marcel’s sexual violence; and her sexual fantasies, initially at least, suggest guilt feelings about being rebellious or being of a privileged background. At the same time she controls Pierre and Marcel’s access to her body by playing victim and while Pierre is happy to go along with this, Marcel refuses to play along and his refusal leads to tragedy.

Severine’s clients also have issues dealing with identity and control: there is the respected gynaecologist, used to commanding respect, who gets exasperated at Severine’s inability to spank him and walk all over him (literally); there is the businessman who imagines himself a ladies’ man but is actually crude and there’s a hint that he rapes Severine as he can’t have her any other way. On a bigger scale, Bunuel plays with audience expectations of how a movie narrative should proceed: there are flashbacks here and there to Severine’s childhood; her daydreams and fantasies intrude into the film without warning (save for cats’ meows and tinkling bells near the end) and exit just as abruptly; and Bunuel and Deneuve herself, who in the 1960’s had a reputation as an blonde ice-queen siren, revel in turning that reputation inside-out. Even the entire film itself is a dreamworld where Bunuel takes pot-shots at religion and class differences, and inverts social and gender control mechanisms. The prostitutes control men’s access to their bodies and the men are controlled by their lusts and desires. Marriage as an institution locks two people who can’t communicate with each other or relate as equals into an endless barren prison.

The details of the film are so layered that each repeated viewing reveals something new. The focus on Severine’s legs and shoes at times not only suggests a fetishistic obsession on Bunuel’s part but reveals Severine’s psychological state and her social status. Her dreams are full of masochistic religious symbols and imagery: in one dream, dragged from a horse-drawn landau that’s just gone through a long tree-lined grove (hint, hint), Severine is then stripped, tied to a tree and lashed; in another, after a herd of bulls with names like Remorse and Expiation charges through a field, Severine is shown tied to a post in a crucifixion pose and pelted with mud and ordure. The apartment where the Serizys live is luxuriously furnished and Severine nearly always looks the stereotypical high-maintenance trophy wife with carefully coiffed hair and porcelain looks. Deneuve’s flat minimal acting and blank expressions actually reveal more of Severine’s state of mind and moods than a more emotional style would; her interaction with Madame Anais in particular, discreet though it is, suggests a mutual lesbian attraction

I suppose one day I’ll watch this film yet again and find it outdated, twee and quaint but that day seems a long way off.

Alphaville: Lemme caution you, it’s a sci-fi flick like no other

Jean-Luc Godard, “Alphaville”, Athos Films (1965)

On the surface “Alphaville” is just one of many episodes in the career of stereotypical hard-boiled trenchcoat-suited detective Lemmy Caution (Eddie Constantine). Caution’s immediate mission is to search for another agent, Dickson, in the city of Alphaville. Inititally the film plays ball in a straightforward film noir manner with stark backgrounds that take advantage of the black-and-white film, with a choppy cartoon musical motif, just what you’d expect of this kind of film. However, listen closely to the early dialogue and you’ll find Caution’s in a city like no other: on arriving at his hotel, a young woman leads him to his room, informing him all the while that she is his specially assigned state prostitute; he contrives to get rid of her and her hidden pimp-enforcer, only to have another young woman, Natasha (Anna Karina), assigned to him. It becomes apparent that Alphaville is a city organised along purely scientific-technocratic principles formulated by the brilliant scientist Von Braun and carried out by his supercomputer Alpha 60.

The citizens of Alphaville live and behave strictly in accordance with these principles which admit no expression or indication of emotion or reasoning that goes against the city’s rigid logic. Much of  the movie’s first half is exposition as Natasha takes Caution on a tour around the city; among other things, he sees law-breakers being punished for being emotional or irrational. Caution progressively drops his nom de plum and his purported reason for visiting Alphaville, and  reveals his real mission: to find and kill Von Braun and destroy Alpha 60; in order to do so, he must understand the nature of the city and how it oppresses its inhabitants and Natasha, and ultimately himself

Quickly the viewer becomes accustomed to director Godard’s deliberate use of modernist concrete and glass buildings and interiors, and the bleak highways and neon signage of Paris of the mid-1960’s, both as the cityscape of Alphaville and as a metaphor for the direction Western society is heading in. The speed with which the viewer accepts Godard’s conceit itself may say mountains about we readily accept authority and authoritarian guidelines even when they contradict human nature and impulses. Raoul Coutard’s camerawork enhances the futuristic aspect of the contemporary Paris landscapes: there are long tracking shots of passages that go on and on and on, suggesting the illogicality of a place ruled by pure logic; there is effective use of Paris nightscapes to suggest an all-seeing mechanised Big Brother; and scenes inside buildings are shot in high contrast to emphasise the alien quality of Alphaville.

The most unnerving aspect of the movie though is the voice of Alpha 60 itself: deep, gravelly and just how you’d expect an obese toad grown to elephant height to talk if such a being could talk, with a clicky machine quality as it draws breath. When Caution finally confronts Alpha 60 in a booth, microphones glide around his head move in stiff but sure movements: the movements of a detached, automated order that grinds down its followers. This is a chilling yet comic scene as Caution defeats Alpha 60 quoting lines of poetry – quite strange for a man of his occupational background

Small details in the movie reference recent European history and literary and film sources: Caution discovers Natasha carries a serial number on her neck; the scientist who created Alphaville is surnamed Von Braun after the German rocket scientist Wernher von Braun who switched his allegiances from Nazi Germany to the United States in order to realise his dream of manned space flight; the hotel used in the movie is one that was occupied by the Nazis during the Second World War; scenes of long passages recall Franz Kafka works like “The Trial” and “The Castle”. The computer voice of Alpha 60 (voiced by a man with an artificial larynx that replaced his cancer-ravaged one) is an influence from a 1930s film. I understand there are several references to Jean Cocteau’s works, none of which I’m familiar with, and one of these is the flight of Caution and Natasha from the oppressive city which is inspired by the Cocteau film “Orphee”, a retelling of the Greek myth about Orpheus and Eurydice set in 1950s Paris. (Thanks, Wikipedia

I’ve heard “Alphaville” itself was a major influence on Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner” and I can see many parallels between the two: “Blade Runner” combines film noir and sci-fi elements in having a hardboiled detective in a future society who, like Caution, submits to a computer test and meets an innocent young woman who, like Natasha, is forced by the detective to confront her “robot” reality and transcend it by learning how to love. Like Caution and Natasha, these two characters flee for their lives once the detective’s mission is completed but the “love conquers all” theme is missing and the mood is tinged with the detective’s knowledge that the woman faces an early death which he is helpless to prevent

Admittedly “Alphaville” isn’t immediately enjoyable – it can induce sleepiness in its first half – and it does look dated due to its settings and its depiction of the technology then current. But some of its themes and ideas are perhaps more relevant to our day than in 1965. This may say something about what Godard had in mind while making the movie; evidently he detected certain trends in Western society which he takes to their logical and sometimes comedic, sometimes horrific extremes in “Alphaville” and some of these trends are well on the way to being realised in our times: they may look sharper, glossier, not so clunky but nevertheless they’re on the march. As long as we have corporate fascism masquerading as capitalism to enforce its “logic” across nations and continents, these tendencies such as dehumanisation of people in a technological society and rule by ideology against human nature will continue. For this reason “Alphaville” continues to have historic didactic value and most folks should see it at least once.  Some may end up watching it again and again whenever the opportunity arises