251. PLAYTIME (1967)

(G. Smalley contributed additional commentary and background to this article.)

Play Time

Playtime is a film that comes from another planet, where they make films differently.”–attributed to Francois Truffaut

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Jacques Tati, Barbara Dennek

PLOT: A nearly plotless “day in the life” of 1967 Paris: a group of American tourists arrive in the city, but instead of visiting the monuments they are taken to a complex of skyscrapers to shop. Meanwhile, Monsieur Hulot is trying to keep an appointment, but gets lost in a mazelike building in the same downtown complex. After business hours, everyone converges on a restaurant on its opening night for a chaotic celebration as the building falls apart around them.

Still from Playtime (1967)

BACKGROUND:

  • The third of four features in which Jacques Tati played the affable, bumbling Monsieur Hulot.
  • Playtime was in production for three years; the downtown sets were constructed by hundreds of workers and were nicknamed “Tativille” among the crew.
  • The film was incredibly expensive to make and Tati took out personal loans to finance it; it was a disappointment at the box office and he went into bankruptcy, giving away Playtime‘s rights in the process.
  • Tati shot the film in 70mm (which was capable of a 2.20:1 aspect ratio, one of the widest formats), and initially insisted the film be screened only in that format in venues with stereophonic sound, despite the fact that very few theaters could meet these specifications. (Partially for this reason, the movie was not screened at all in the United States until 1972). He later relented and allowed 35mm prints to be struck.
  • Humorist and newspaper columnist Art Buchwald wrote the English dialogue for Tati.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Many people will best remember Hulot’s view from the second-floor view of a factory-like job site composed of a maze of cubicles—a workplace prophecy that’s come true. We chose a scene—one of three in the film—where straggling Barbara opens a door to one of her tour’s commercialized sightseeing destinations, only to see the Eiffel Tower (or the Arc de Triomphe, or the Sacré Coeur) perfectly reflected in the plate glass. These shots express Tati’s theme of the disappearance of culture under the ugliness of modernity, while retaining the wistful hopefulness that is characteristic of his work.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Faux Hulots; cubicle labyrinth; doorman with no door

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Playtime is about the alienating, isolating influence technology has on human beings. It’s not the standard elements of plot, narrative, character development or dialogue that pulls an equally alienated audience into this unfurling drama, but the careful choreography of hapless humans navigating a barely recognizable hypermodern Paris. Play Time is a sort of anti-Brazil.


Short Clip from Playtime

COMMENTS: Do you remember when watching “Tom and Jerry” on television, there would occasionally be a cartoon showing off a humorous version of cars or homes of the future? There would be no main character, just a narrator describing some startling innovation, and then there would be a sight-gag or funny noise to produce a laugh, and it would move on to the next futuristic comedic set-piece. Playtime is a feature film based on a very similar premise, with two differences:  there is a strong undertone of humanity and history struggling against technology, and there is no narrator to help guide you from one farcical gag to another.

The main characters are French everyman M. Hulot (Tati) and American tourist Barbara, who wander through the modern marvel that Paris has become and are continually obstructed by the technology that is supposed to make their lives easier. Hulot spends a long scene searching haplessly through a (then bizarre-looking but now surprisingly familiar) cube farm to find a businessman with whom he has an appointment. Barbara struggles to take a picture of something uniquely French, not just because pedestrians keep walking between her and the florist she fancies, but also because huge steel and glass buildings have almost completely obscured romantic Paris (the same city Cole Porter lovingly described). With little meaningful dialogue and a tendency to abandon characters to their fates, it is difficult for the audience to make a coherent narrative out of the stark, gleaming, geometric scenes that linger slowly and deliberately on the screen. Particularly during Playtime‘s first half, the series of clever slapstick events that pepper the film supply the only human connection. They allow us to sympathize not only with Hulot and Barbara, but also with innocent cushions that blurt obscenely when sat upon and a broiled fish that is repeatedly heated, spiced, and basted, never to be served.

If discomfort and silly humor were the only features of Playtime, the result would be just like those “Tom and Jerry” cartoons, only bleaker and more disturbing. Fortunately, Tati allows humanity to win over technology, or at least stand on even footing. The citizens of super-Paris do eventually begin to connect with each other. Some of these connections are obvious: Hulot does eventually find his businessman, but he also bumps into several friends from the army, and he also meets Barbara. Some of the connections, though, are subtle, surprising, and hilarious, as when two families engrossed in programs showing on the television sets fixed to the wall dividing their apartments appear to be reacting to the events in the other family’s home. The movie culminates in a riotous party scene—possibly the best I’ve ever watched—at a restaurant slowly falling apart around the revelers due to shoddy construction. Here, technology does its absolute best to ruin the partygoers’ night, but they hardly notice; or if they do, they improvise on the destruction to the advantage of a good time. Meanwhile, a number of seemingly forgotten incidental characters from earlier in the movie—an obnoxious American, a portly sloven, a precise English businessman—come back and become much more alive and interesting amid the chaos. The movie’s weirdness never goes away, but it softens until it gently lands at the conclusion of 24 hours of hectic hypermodernity.

G. Smalley adds: The multiple requests for Jacques Tati films on our Suggest a Weird Movie! page prove that Tati is a cult director; it’s just that his cult is composed of sophisticated cinephiles rather than everyday fanboys. Although critics almost universally praise every Tati film—sometimes to the point of fawning—the average filmgoer today finds typical Tati a rather dull affair, plotless and filled with gags that are usually more conceptually clever than funny. I count myself as one who is more an admirer of Tati than a fan, but I have to admit that Hulot is one odd chap—not so much in his comic persona, but in the absurd modern world that he finds himself lost in. Tati creates incredibly detailed mise-en-scene, little diorama boxes filled with action in every corner, and his attention to detail shows an obsession that definitely borders on the weird.

Tati’s deep-focus compositions that invite the eye to rove across the entire depth of field are precursors to the work Swedish miserabilist , who suggests what Tati might have become if he’d lived long enough to turn bitter and lose his faith. As it is, Tati died of natural causes before modernity could crush his spirit; so, although he sees the ugliness of the commercialized world (reflected in its gleaming, inhuman, utilitarian architecture), he maintains a hopefulness rooted in humanity’s unpredictable capacity to mess things up. Hulot is a bumbler, introducing human chaos into a dehumanized world, and the rambunctious restaurant scene that ends Playtime is the climax of all Tati’s odes of disorder. He builds up, then he tears down his own meticulously constructed set in an orgy of drunken joy. Of course, that freedom in itself is an illusion, because Tati has carefully choreographed every misstep—but don’t dwell on it.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Jacques Tati’s ‘Playtime,’ like ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ or ‘The Blair Witch Project’ or ‘Russian Ark,’ is one of a kind, complete in itself, a species already extinct at the moment of its birth. …a peculiar, mysterious, magical film.”–Roger Ebert, “Great Movies” series

“Hulot on the loose in a surreal, scarcely recognisable Paris… a hallucinatory comic vision on the verge of abstraction.”–Time Out Film Guide

“This city is every bit as strange as Godard’s Alphaville. Playtime is wonderfully controlled and contrived, with deep-focus scenes of surreality that must surely have inspired Roy Andersson.”–Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian

IMDB LINK: Playtime (1967)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

Playtime (1967) – The Criterion Collection – Criterion’s page hosts numerous film clips an essays on Tati and Playtime

Playtime (1972) – Overview – Turner Classic Movies’s Playtime page, with an essay by Sean Axmaker and two clips

Interiors (09/12) – An excerpt form an intensive analysis of the apartment set from the online journal of architecture on film

The restoration of “Playtime” – Diary-style reflections by Jean-Rene Faillot on his work restoring the film for a 2002 screening at Cannes

My holiday with Monsieur Hulot – Reminiscence from Peter Lennon for “The Guardian” on how he went from journalist/interviewer to extra to screenplay collaborator on Playtime

DVD INFO: The Criterion Collection released Playtime on DVD in 2006 (buy) and then upgraded it to Blu-ray (buy) in 2009. With some of the original footage cut by Tati’s creditors in an attempt to shorten the film and salvage its commercial prospects, and the original 70mm film damaged, Playtime had to be painstakingly restored in 2003. Criterion presents the 4K finished product in an aspect ratio of 1.78:1. Although not as wide as Tati originally intended, because of all the long shots and the action spread across the frame, this movie will benefit from viewing on the largest screen in the highest definition you can find. Extras on both editions include an introduction by , commentaries (for three scenes only, by three different experts), a video essay,  archival interviews with Tati and others who worked on the film, behind-the-scenes features, and of course a booklet.

The film is also available as part of Criterion’s 7-disc “The Complete Jacques Tati” Blu-ray set (buy).

Platytime can also be rented or downloaded on-demand (rent or download).

3 thoughts on “251. PLAYTIME (1967)”

  1. As a Tati fan and someone for whom Playtime is my favorite film, thank you for a very nice appreciation.

    However, Playtime’s initial failure unfortunately did leave Tati bitter and with a loss of faith. He was ruined financially and his magnum opus was only beginning to be fully appreciated at the end of his life. I was told personally by a filmmaker who sought him out that he found him to be a bitter, broken man when he finally met him.

    He only made two films after Playtime: Trafic and Parade. Trafic, while it has its admirers and its merits, is a belated M. Hulot farewell or swan song, with a palpable commercial tension due to its financial backers’ insistence.

    I am eternally grateful that Tati made Playtime, and even more grateful that the original 65mm negative was restored in 2002. I have had the pleasure of seeing it projected in 70mm several times with appreciative audiences. Unfortunately, to my knowledge the 4K restoration has inexplicably yet to screen in Los Angeles, though I do own the Criterion box set. It’s just not the same watching it at home as it is on the big screen with an audience…

    Also, though shot in 65mm, I’m sure that Playtime was not composed for 2.20:1. Tati chose the format for clarity and multi-track sound, not widescreen. This article on the 70mm restoration (http://www.in70mm.com/news/2004/playtime/index.htm) cites the negative at 1.75:1, and the restorers chose 1.85:1 as the closest modern equivalent.

    Thank you again!

    1. Thank you Scott, the question of the original intended aspect ratio is a bit confusing—I saw several different numbers cited by different sources, which is why I equivocated with the fact that 70mm was “capable” of 2.20:1.

      And although Tati may personally have been bitter and broken—understandably so—I think it’s fortunate that it didn’t come through in his films. Roy Andersson’s always been a sourpuss, and I appreciate that. But if he were once a whimsical clown who started making bleak, despairing movies late in life, it would be far more depressing.

      Thanks for the informative comments.

  2. I think that you’ll enjoy Joan Ockman’s essay, “Architecture in a Mode of Distraction: Eight Takes on Jacques Tati’s Playtime” in the collection of essays, “Architecture and Film” , if you can manage getting ahold of a copy. It’s quite good, especially coming from a distinguished professor of architecture.

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