52-film Challenge, week 5
I have seen many (though also not nearly enough) of the films often ranked in the top 100 of the “greatest films of all time” — as though time was over (or making films was over) and a final judgement could be rendered.
Playtime, made by and starring Jacques Tati, is a bona-fide masterpiece and visually one of the greatest films made … thus far. Forget Avatar, this 70mm exploration of humanity versus modernity blends several distinct film genres into one, with both deep philosophical and funny results.
In its way, it is a silent movie. Not literally of course, but dialogue is generally not viewed as that important and often pushed into the background. Actions take center stage and often key “gags” are performed simultaneously, meaning viewers have to keep their eye on virtually everything happening in the (wide) picture frame, and their ears open for any snippets of important “story” detail.
It is a film that demands, and rewards, your full attention.
Mostly, Playtime doesn’t really have a story as such: it is structured more like a “day in the life of” type film. That said, we do more-or-less follow a couple of key characters around a few city blocks over the course of around 18 hours — Tati himself, playing the hapless everyman of Monsieur Hulot (which appeared in some of Tati’s earlier films, most notably Mon Oncle), and the American tourist Barbara, who came to Paris to see the famous sights, but can’t seem to find them except for glimpses and moments.
The theme of the film seems to be that Paris is modernizing, and losing its character — but that humanity (at least as embodied by the Parisians in the film) fight back with chaos against the new, bland, glass-and-steel city they find themselves in.
Anyone who enjoys architecture as a topic of sometimes-appreciation, sometimes-debate — like me — will be positively swimming in the gigantic custom-built set of ultra-modern (and still uncannily relevant, 55 years later) “Tativille,” where traditional Paris is only seen in reflections in the endless glass doors or symbolised by a lonely flower shop on one of the exceptionally-clean street corners.
It doesn’t matter if you already know M. Hulot from the earlier films, his character is a universal silent-film comic archetype: a good person who continually falls into comedic misfortune or unwittingly helps drive events in the film through his difficulty in this unfamiliar environment.
Where nearly everyone wears smart suits or fashionably bland dresses, Hulot primarily wears a mack (overcoat), a traditional hat, ill-fitting clothes, and carries a pipe. He is a person living in the mid-60s, but not at ease with the pace of change and modernisation. The influence this must have had on Rowan Atkinson’s Mr Bean can scarcely be overstated.
Barbara, the tourist, often separates herself from the sheep-like tourist group she is with, determined to see the area on her own terms — but like a lost lamb she is often rounded up again and herded along to wherever the next encounter is supposed to be. When she sees only the reflection of the Eiffel Tower, she turns to gaze at it longingly — but she is miles away, in this concrete jungle.
Hulot stumbles around the film — seen more often than any other single character, but likewise often disappears for a while — bouncing from one hapless round of mostly-visual sight gags to another, all within a jungle of beautiful but sterile steel-and-glass storefronts and offices. One of the early scenes shows M. Hulot attempting to meet with an official of some sort, but the two only rarely intersect in the rat’s maze of a corporate cubicle farm (predicting that trend over 20 years early).
Barbara and M. Hulot do run across each other increasingly as the film goes on, because they are nearly always in what feels like about a four-block radius of each other. Unlike most films that feature strangers meeting, it never threatens to become a romantic comedy, and this is refreshing.
As mentioned, sound (and music) happens in this film to distinguish it from a silent film, but in the early scenes it’s used more like a paintbrush to set tones or support the visual language, and only much later in the film do both sound and human dialogue really come forward as equal elements.
Things build slowly, focusing on sight gags early on (and again, you have to pay nearly as much attention to the background as the foreground to get a feel for everything that is happening), but over time the film slyly shifts from being fascinated by the buildings and settings to focusing on the increasingly-chaotic humans as the action turns to the opening night of a not-quite-ready nightclub opening.
Eventually, full-blown chaos explodes among both the established characters and the myriad newcomers into the tale, but there isn’t really a climax in the traditional sense: things hit a peak, but as the dawn breaks we follow the climb-down and emerging calm that will reset the picture back to nearly the beginning, as the club empties, people find their way home, and Barbara gets back on the bus to go back to the airport — but not without spending just a bit of time with the old-fashioned gentleman that she’s been running into all evening.
At two hours, I’m not sure if modern attention spans will have as much love for Playtime as I do –– but the payoff on this film is enormous, and on multiple levels. It is a masterclass in visual comedy, multi-focus direction, sound as a background rather than foreground tool, societal commentary, and a celebration of messy humanity against a sterile, unfeeling backdrop.
Shot with 65mm film for a 70mm release, Playtime is ideal for HD and 4K TVs because everything, all the way back, is in focus. This gives Tati the opportunity to have lots of “business” happening throughout the entire frame, compared to the usual focusing on the main thing the director wants you to notice. This director wants you to notice it all.
The colour hues and theme of automation uber alles are stunningly gorgeous and, unlike most films of this period, would easily convince some viewers that it was made much closer to the current year than it was. Its contrast of de-humanising and re-humanising themes is endearing and still relevant.
The prolonged pre-production, wildly expensive full-size sets and clever illusions, the perfectionistic direction of almost every actor in shot and much more establish this film as a beautifully synchronised machine with only small moments of anarchy at the beginning, but by the end the wheels have completely come off in joyous defiance of sharp angles, and a smooth-running society.
It is a joyous movie that absolutely bankrupted and ruined Tati’s reputation, but he felt it had to be made at all costs — and he was right. It is an utter masterpiece, and nearly as relevant today as it was in 1967.
I’ll avoid talking about the ending of the film, but after (finally) some actual human moments in the denouement, Tati saves his best and most withering (visual) comment for the final scene. If viewers have tapped into Playtime’s zeitgeist and stayed with it, they are richly rewarded as it fades to black.