Playtime is the fourth feature film from French director Jacques Tati, and in a string of masterpieces is arguably the best film he ever made. I didn’t think cinema could get much better than his Mon Oncle, but this highly ambitious film – shot in 70mm it utilizes an enormously complex mise en scene as a cinematic play pen and took about four years to shoot and put together – feels like one of the all-time greats.
Set over the course of a single day and night, Playtime doesn’t really have much of a narrative structure to speak of. It is comprised of chapters, which can be defined by the locations utilized (an airport, an office building, a trade exhibition, a restaurant etc). There are repeated encounters between Tati's iconic character, Monsieur Hulot, and an American tourist (Barbara Dennekk), who has just arrived in Paris with a tour group, as well as Hulot's interactions with several others that make recurring appearances.
Tati appears in Mon Oncle and Monsier Hulot’s Holiday as Monsieur Hulot, a silent comic character he reprises intermittently, and a little begrudgingly I understand, in Playtime. Hulot sports a trench coat, a hat and pants that are too short, carries an umbrella and walks with a forward lean. His reactions to strange modern phenomenon are an effortless form of comedy, as are the awkward situations he finds himself in and the friends he makes along the way. That Tati is so involved in front of the camera it is a testament to his abilities as a director.
The Loaded 70mm Mise-en-scene
I think this point will speak for itself when you watch this film. Imagine seeing this on a VMAX or IMAX screen. Tati's canvas is enormous, and not a single piece of the frame over the course of the 124 minutes is wasted.
Old France vs. modernity
Playtime is a satire on modern urban lifestyle. Most of the film is set in cold, sterile and lifeless ultra-modern buildings with steel and glass architecture and artificial furnishings made up of pods and box-shaped offices and apartments. Classic Paris is barely recognizable, except for Barbara’s single glance of the Eiffel Tower reflected in a glass door and a colourful flower stall ran by an elderly lady. Barbara’s attempts to photograph this stall are repeatedly foiled by nosy people walking into shot. Hulot is another figure of old France. He doesn’t dress like anyone else, he fumbles with the modern inventions, and appears to be trapped in a time warp. Even when he is recognized by people, Hulot is referred to as their ‘old friend’ from the war.
This is a very funny film with the humour created through circumstances brought about by a barrage of modern impracticalities and the bumbling Hulot’s attempts to navigate the overwhelming changes that have transformed the Paris he once knew. Often Tati’s frames are so loaded with activity that it is easy to miss simultaneous sight gags that are taking place on different planes of action. If your attention is directed at something to the left of the frame in the foreground, chances are you are going to miss a co-existing gag that is taking place to the right and in the background. This is common.
In the second half at the Royal Garden, the hive of activity is overwhelming. The incredible energy – masses of patrons dancing to the music, waiters coming and going at all times with meals and drinks, and several arcs (an architect identifying problems with his design and proposing solutions and a waiter barred from service because of a ripped jacket are just a couple) evolving simultaneously - could prove tiring for some. For me, it was exhilarating. The editing must have been a nightmare, though there wasn’t once when I questioned the film's continuity.
Reward in the Re-watch
It is impossible to take in everything offered in this film from a single look. I have only watched it the once and I already feel like it is one of the greatest films I have ever seen. I have no doubt that repeated viewings will further enhance my appreciation. I feel they are essential to grasping everything this fascinating film has to offer. From the clinically ordered opening sequences in the sparse, empty airport to the subtle meaning of the heartwarmingly sweet gesture of Hulot’s parting gift, this is a wonderful film from a filmmaker who has never forgotten the world he grew up in and never let go of the importance of human connection within a material-minded world that has become increasingly distracted.
Andrew Buckle - follow Andy on Twitter here: @buckle22