“Playtime” may be one of the most difficult movies to categorize or review and it may be a difficult movie for some people to process. French filmmaker Jacques Tati is known for focusing more on people and communities and allowing his stories to be told visually through their interactions. He was much more interested in visual comedy through observation than presenting a structured narrative. With “Playtime” he takes this unique style and amplifies it. But with this film he has a different intention and much bigger expectations that may be hard to appreciate at first glance.
“Playtime” was Tati’s most ambitious project and at the time it was the most expensive movie in French history. It never made its money back at the box office and eventually drove Tati into bankruptcy. Much of the high cost went into the enormous set built by the filmmaker. Money issues made constructing the set drag out almost 4 years. But if you’ve seen the film it’s impossible to not be in awe of what Tati created. His set included an airport, skyscrapers, apartment buildings, office complexes, a downtown area, and several busy city streets. All of it represented the new futuristic Paris that Tati often spoke against in his films.
This is also a movie intended to fade out Tati’s popular Mr. Hulot character. Tati was growing tired of him and used this as an opportunity to move on to something new. But some believe this is one reason the movie wasn’t as well received by the public as hoped. Mr. Hulot was incredibly popular with audiences and his limited appearances in this picture didn’t sit well with some viewers. But honestly, Mr. Hulot is only a cog in Tati’s big machine. This was never meant to be a Mr. Hulot picture in the same vein as “Mr. Hulot’s Holiday” or “Mon Oncle”.
“Playtime” does incorporate several of Tati’s signature techniques in filmmaking and comedy. The gags often hinge on timing and some of them require careful attention or you just might miss them. There is no meaningful dialogue in the picture. Instead the voices of people are simply part of the important background noise that we hear throughout the film. Sound has often played a significant part in Tati’s films and it’s no different here. Everything from the loud heels clicking on the cold, hard floors to the flatulent noises from the hip office chairs has a distinct and intentional sound.
The movie is broken down into sections. It begins in what resembles a hospital but we soon find it’s an airport. It’s here that we are first introduced to some of the film’s reoccurring characters including a tour group of women from the United States and of course Mr. Hulot. From there the movie moves into Tati’s vision of where Paris was heading – a city of long, congested, assembly-line like streets with matching skyscrapers made of steel and glass. The city’s traditional beauty and history is gone replaced by a cold and sterile modernist future. Tati does give us quick looks back at the city’s glory but they are cleverly shown reflections seen in glass doors. The reflections of the Eiffel Tower and of the Sacré-Cœur Basilica on Montmartre hill are visions of a Paris that Tati sees as disappearing in the real world.
Mr. Hulot is lost in this new world. The second big section of the movie takes place in an office high-rise where Hulot is set to have a meeting. Tati makes the place incredibly impersonal and goes to great lengths to portray the building’s futuristic technology as silly and pointless. There is a great scene that illustrates this right after Hulot enters the office building. He’s met by a little old doorman who sits him down while he calls upstairs. To do so the old fella has to work an overly complex intercom system, all the time grumbling to himself as he carries out his perfunctory, everyday duties. He refuses to let Hulot leave his seat, making him wait and wait until the executive he’s there to meet finally arrives from upstairs. But the executive moves him into an office 10 feet away from where he’s been waiting and has him sit down and wait longer. The doorman, the intercom, and the long wait were for the most part pointless.
Hulot ends up getting lost and he stumbles upon a trade show happening in another part of the building. This is where the next section of the movie takes place. It’s followed by some time spent gazing into an apartment complex before heading to an evening at a nice restaurant. Most of the film’s second half takes place in the restaurant. Hulot ends up inside but we really see very little of him. Instead we’re introduced to the new series of characters including a loud and obnoxious American businessman, a clever doorman, an embarrassed waiter who has ripped his pants, the antsy owner, a drunk, the aforementioned tour group, and a number of other people.
The restaurant sequence is a pretty impressive thing to behold. We watch as the night starts slow but as the crowd increases and several mishaps occur, things liven up. There’s really nothing else to the scene. There isn’t a deeper story angle to latch onto nor is there one central character to follow. It’s pure observation as the camera steps back and moves from one section of the restaurant to another. We simply watch everything as if we were sitting on a stool in the corner of the room. It’s unlike anything I’ve seen. It’s a bold and inventive experiment but it’s also laced with some really funny gags. And it doesn’t stop there. There’s a really good drugstore sequence and some time spent on the congested city streets before zipping us back to the airport.
You can’t watch “Play Time” and not be impressed with the skill and the craft of Jacques Tati. And while it certainly has some funny moments, it lacks the playfulness of the previous Mr. Hulot films and I have to admit I missed that. The shelving of Hulot is obvious as Tati intentionally loses him in the concrete, glass, and metal world he created. In fact, at times it seems that Tati is rubbing it in our faces by occasionally throwing out men who walk and dress like Hulot but we find out they are not. By shortening the screen time of his beloved character he forces us to look at the bigger picture that he’s painted on his personal canvas. He makes us look beyond what we’re familiar with and what we expect.
There is nothing conventional about “Play Time”. It’s an ambitious project that also has that signature Tati humor. But it’s nothing like the filmmaker’s previous work and that took some adjusting for me. And personally speaking, this film just didn’t resonate with me like his other work. Staying with the movie can be a bit of a challenge and the humor is spread out and more subtle. But the craftsmanship behind this film can’t be questioned and the sheer scope of the undertaking is incredible. There is so much going on throughout this picture and for a movie with no substantial plot or direction that’s a pretty amazing accomplishment.