The Pleasures of ‘Playtime’

As soon as I finished “Playtime,” Jacques Tati’s 1967 comedy about the foibles and follies of modern-day Paris, I immediately wanted to rewatch it. In part, that was because it was delightful. But like a movie with a good twist ending, it was also for the chance to discover all the details I had missed.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a filmmaker so fully fill the frame like Tati, at least not for a film as unassuming as “Playtime.” Shot on ultrawide 70mm by Jean Badal and Andréas Winding, “Playtime” feels monumental, and in a way it was. At the time of its release, it was the most expensive French film ever made, and due to its financial failure, it completely bankrupted its maker. But time has been kind to ole Tati, whose film we now regard as a masterpiece of sight and sound; a movie about being old-fashioned that you can only appreciate in the future.

Before he was a director, Tati was a mime, and before he made “Playtime,” he made two other comedies: “Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday” and “Mon Oncle.” While the former is a bit more pedestrian, “Mon Oncle” laid the groundwork for what would become his thematic obsession. In the film, Tati reprises the role of Monsieur Hulot, a clumsy but affable Frenchman whose signature style — a corduroy coat and matching hat, outgrown pants with argyle socks, a pipe in his mouth — made him instantly iconic (and later, an inspiration for Rowan Atkinson’s Mr. Bean). The film is about a visit Hulot pays to his nephew at their ultra-modern home in the suburbs of Paris, where he’s puzzled by the silly and complicated contraptions that had come to define French consumerism in the postwar era. It was a huge hit and won Tati the Academy Award for Best Foreign-Language Film.

But Tati wasn’t done lampooning modern Paris; in fact, he was just getting started. For his next trick, Tati made “Playtime,” an immense, intricately choreographed film that dreamed much bigger than a house in the suburbs. In “Playtime,” Tati makes up a city. Dubbed “Tativille,” it consisted of looming, gray towers and transparent, glass cubicles, a sleek but soulless parody of Parisian modernism. Watching “Playtime,” I was reminded of Charlie Kaufman’s “Synecdoche, New York,” in which Philip Seymour Hoffman plays a theatre director whose play about life itself balloons into a production so unwieldy it can only be staged in a warehouse. At least Caden Cotard’s set didn’t require a power plant to operate!

“Playtime,” however, is both sweeping and specific. Tati doesn’t waste a centimeter of the screen, packing his chic environment with so much detail that at first it can feel overwhelming. Imagine if a “Where’s Waldo?” illustration could move. But none of it is random; ever the auteur, Tati has finely orchestrated every movement we see. For example, there might be a gag in one corner of the screen while, simultaneously, another gag occurs at the opposite end. Film critic Noël Burch wrote that “[‘Playtime’] has to be seen not only several times, but from several different points in the theater.” It’s not that you’ll miss anything important; it’s more like you won’t want to leave. Watching it from a fresh perspective is the closest you can get to watching it again for the first time.

Because really, I don’t mean to scare you away! “Playtime” is a light, bright comedy, a charming film that made me smile from ear to ear. It doesn’t have many characters, or much of a plot at all. It begins inconspicuously in what at first appears to be a hospital. A worried wife fusses over her husband in the foreground while what seem like doctors and nurses rush behind them. As the scene develops, we realize this isn’t a hospital at all… it’s an airport. So uncompromising is the modernist architecture that locations have become interchangeable; the environment has lost all its meaning in the face of (or more accurately, because of) our technological advancements.

When Monsieur Hulot finally enters, we don’t even recognize him. In fact, I missed his entrance entirely on my first watch. It’s only when he drops his umbrella that our eyes dart towards him, his hunched, tawny figure but another extra in the background of the scene. Tati makes brilliant use of sound in “Playtime,” controlling our gaze with noises and effects. The film is so busy, visually, that sound becomes the only way Tati can direct our attention. In a way, he’s inverting the language of cinema itself; while most movies use the camera to show us what’s important, Tati uses the speakers, elevating sound far beyond the background noise of lesser films.

Despite this, “Playtime” is a nearly wordless comedy, with most of the dialogue either purposely vapid or a kind of vaguely European gibberish. No doubt Tati was inspired by the Tramp himself, Charlie Chaplin; if the nods to “Modern Times” weren’t enough, the name “Hulot” is actually a play on “Charlot,” the French name for Chaplin’s Tramp character.

Much like Chaplin, Tati had a gift for slapstick. In “Playtime,” Tati heightens that hilarity, not only with sound but with the size and depth of his frame. The film consists mostly of long shots with the occasional medium; Tati loathed close-ups, calling them “crude.” So instead of focusing on reactions, Tati doubles down on the physical comedy itself, capturing the whole human body in all its awkward glory. Despite the perfection of Paris, its inhabitants are infallibly fallible.

Besides Hulot, the closest thing to a main character in “Playtime” is an American tourist named Barbara. She’s come to Paris with a gaggle of middle-aged women who ooh and ah at everything they see; their small talk is so small it becomes only funnier the longer it persists. Like Hulot, Barbara seems at odds with her environment. She’s more interested in timeless Parisian landmarks like the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe than Tativille. But we only ever see these landmarks reflected in the glass planes of skyscrapers, and they serve as a lingering specter for the Paris of old.

Barbara and Hulot cross paths throughout the film as Tati effortlessly glides from one vignette to the next. It all culminates in an extended sequence at the opening of a hip, new restaurant, where the cast of literal hundreds finally let their hair down, even as the restaurant is revealed to be a shabby, modernist mess. Up until this point, Tati’s palette has been a self-serious mix of brown, white and grey, but as this sequence unfolds Tati begins to introduce a little color into his world. By the time the night is over and the sun is starting to rise, color has exploded into Tativille. The final scene, at a traffic circle, becomes worthy of a Barnum & Bailey circus.

I think this wave of color — and the crescendo of Francis Lemarque’s sweet score — speak to what Tati was trying to say with “Playtime.” While the movie pokes fun at modern times and technology, it never comes from a curmudgeon-y, “We live in a society” kind of place. It is, after all, called “Playtime.” I don’t think Tati was perturbed by modernity so much as he was amused by it. Amused by the silliness of our creations, only so silly because it was we who created them. As François Truffaut described it, “Playtime” is “a film that comes from another planet, where they make films differently.” I cannot think of higher praise. 10/10

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