DIRECTED BY: Jacques Tati
FEATURING: Jacques Tati, Barbara Dennek
PLOT: Monsieur Hulot gets lost on his way to an appointment and wanders around a nearly
unrecognizable, technologically transformed Paris.
WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: Play Time 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 sort of an anti-Brazil.
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. Play Time 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 in 1953, a mere six years before this film was released). 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 Play Time‘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 Play Time, 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.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY: