Playtime, 1967, France
Director: Jacques Tati
Stars: Jacques Tati, Barbara Dennek & Rita Maiden
"I love Paris at this time of morning."
Francois Truffaut said of 'Playtime' that it is "a film that comes from another planet, where they make things differently", only after you've experienced Tati's one of a kind vision, can you fully comprehend Truffaut's statement. 'Playtime' was, at the time, the most expensive French film ever made. In a risk that is reserved for the most vivid of dreamers, Tati had an entire glass city constructed on the outskirts of Paris, coined "Tativille", for the production of this film which lasted nine years. Unfortunately, like a number of the great films, 'Playtime' was a misunderstood financial failure that left Tati in debt. But, also as the great films do, its power couldn't be suppressed and the film has finally gotten the recognition it should have received in 1967.
The film opens with a shot of a cloudy sky, as the opening credits go by the clouds begin to make way for the blue Paris sky, when suddenly a shot of a large building appears on the screen, thus setting the tone for Tati's extraordinary exploration of modernism.
'Playtime' is essentially a film of four general parts and little moments in between. The first of which begins with a couple sitting in a modernistic but sterile and grey building. The enviroment suggests that this is indeed a hospital, we see nuns, nurses and what appears to be a wheelchair bound patient, the woman's dialouge also suggests this as she tells her worried partner things such as "It's a long wait", "you'll take care of yourself" and "You've got an appointment". It's not until photographers, guards, school kids and tourists enter the frame, and we see that the "wheelchair bound patient" was actually a couple of suitcases with a blanket over the top, that we are in fact in an airport. This is an example of Tati playing on our assumptions and expectations and showing us what a playful and enigmatic filmmaker he is.
Speaking of Tati playing with our assumptions and expectations, this is also evident in the way he introduces Mr. Hulot into the film. For those who are unfamiliar, Hulot is to Tati what The Tramp was to Charles Chaplin, an iconic character that becomes synonymous with the legendary filmmaker. 'Playtime' was the penultimate appearance of Hulot on film and his third overall. After 'Mr. Hulot's Holiday' & 'Mon Oncle', and the way in which he was driving force for the loose narratives that Tati provided in those films, you would expect him to Hulot a notable entrance with a fair amount of fanfare, but that's not the case in 'Playtime'. The film is so layered and every shot is filled with detail that you blink and easily miss Hulot's entrance, which is mid shot in between groups of people, you can see his trademark coat, short pants, colorful socks, umbrella & brimmed hat folded at the back. You can also easily miss his second appearance, which is also in between groups of people, this time he drops his umbrella which makes a loud crack that draws the viewer's eye to Hulot, but by the time you spot him, he is already walking out of the shot. Eventually, when Tati takes out of the airport, we clearly see the Hulot strolls across the pathway, a woman yells "Mr. Hulot", who turns around and reveals he is, in fact, not Mr. Hulot! "I'm not Hulot. My name is Smith. I think you've made some sort of mistake".
Eventually we see the real Hulot, exiting a bus and, ironically, getting his umbrella caught on Mr. Smith's one. The fact that Smith is donning the famous attire Hulot is famous for and Hulot himself wearing a different jacket, it's Tati's way of telling his audiences early that this really isn't another Hulot film, he's there, sure, but the main star of the film is people themselves.
The first sequence of the film begins when Hulot visits a lavish building for a meeting. Upon his arrival there he meets an elderly security guard, who has to work a large machine in order to inform the higher ups that Hulot is arrived. As we see the man struggle to work the machine, Tati makes us aware that some people can get left behind when it comes to such technology, as the man proclaims "Who understands all this electronic stuff? All these buttons". Comedic hijinks of the highest order ensue as Hulot and the man he is there for a meeting with get there wires crossed, so to speak, which sees Hulot running over the building, which resembles a maze, trying to find the man, in a wonderfully orchestrated sequence.
The misunderstanding leads to Hulot accidentally stumbling into a Trade Exhibition. This allows Tati to continue making commentaries about the ever evolving modern world, like the woman who is selling trash cans in the shape of the ancient Greek pillars, titled "Thro.out Greek Style" (which can also be seen in the restaurant later in the film), this is a striking message that we are pushing aside these iconic feats of humanity for modern architecture. There are also some striking pieces of imagery throughout the film in which the famous Paris landmarks can only be seen in the reflection of revolving doors, i.e The Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triomphe & Sacrè-Coeur.
Next, Hulot meets an old Army buddy who invites him into his brand new Ultra modern apartment building. This is another comment of modernism and how he can take away our uniqueness and personality. The scene, which is shots solely from street view, and shows identical apartments, with no real sense of privacy or personality, lined up against one another. Watching the exact same TV program.
Finally, we come to one of the best sequences in the history, The Royal Garden scene. This takes place in a restaurant that is having its grand opening while it is still in construction, cutting corners in order in order to get the place in time, even after the customers have arrived. These leads to plenty of hilarious moments with the environment, quite literally, crumbling around them and the employees trying to do their best to cover it. It's also a fun twist that the customers seems to become more and more comfortable as things start to go haywire, as opposed to when it was a stuck-up pompous environment.
'Playtime' is a film that you should see once in order to prepare yourself for it. I watched it twice this week and while I absolutely loved it on my first viewing, it was a completely different experience the second time around, and I mean that in the best possible way. The film is so layered, you could watch it 10 times while looking at a different part of the screen and get 10 different cinematic experiences. Jacques Tati is one of the greatest and most inventive minds in the history of Cinema and just Art in general, and 'Playtime' is truly his magnum opus, his masterpiece. Tati truly makes things differently.