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.