Take a Drink: whenever Mr. Hulot (or you) get disoriented
Take a Drink: for those damn square chairs
Take a Drink: Fuckin’ Americans…
Take a Drink: for eccentric inventions
Take a Drink: for Hulot-gangers
Take a Drink: for everything wrong with the restaurant
Take a Drink: whenever someone falls off a stool
Do a Shot: to catch up with the restaurant patrons
Do a Shot Upside Down and Through Your Nose: to alleviate the crushing sameness of the beginning
By: Henry J. Fromage (A Toast) –
Playtime is one of a handful of oft-cited classics that I’ve just never gotten around to after voraciously devouring every Ebert “Great Film” and IMDB Top 250 flick I could get my hands on in university. When Criterion finally released that usual definitive restored version, I knew now was the time to strike.
You know you’re doing it right when you turn legendary filmmakers into kids in a candy store.
Jacques Tati, to make a simple but descriptive comparison, is the Charlie Chaplin of Franc. While not a silent film comedian, he had the soul of one, and he was an artistic genius who also directed his own films, exerting such a degree of control that you could call them wholly his. Playtime is his magnum opus, an almost plotless affair in which his iconic Mr. Hulot character wanders in and out of an exaggerated modern Paris, running into old acquaintances, bumbling through stores and offices, and ending up in the middle of a family restaurant’s chaotic, nigh-disastrous opening night.
Playtime is an unimpeachable masterpiece of craft. It’s clear from the outset that Tati put a phenomenal amount of thought into every aspect of this film, from the too-clean and boxy lines of the modern Parisian sets (massive and built especially for the film) to the immaculately framed widescreen compositions (there’s not a single closeup to be seen) to the sound a loafer or neon sign makes. The result is stunning.
This is a film with rhythms unlike any other I’ve experienced. At first, it’s extremely off-putting and uncomfortable as Tati uses those sharp lines and subtle, but comprehensive choreography of every moving element of a scene, coupled with a spare, but accentuated sound design to emphasize the cool emptiness of this sterile office environment.
Too real, man, too real!
It’s only gradually that we realize we are occupying the same psychic space as his Mr. Hulot, bewildered by this impersonal homogeneity that seems to have pervaded even how people walk and talk. As Playtime moves, though, it becomes clear that Tati is more interested in environment and feeling than plot, as Mr. Hulot and an American tourist, Barbara, who are the closest characters we have to protagonists, meander in and out of the focus of a scene. Often Tati will linger on a tableau after the “main” character has left it, or transition to a new one while they’re stuck on a street corner having a conversation he doesn’t care about. Or, in one incredible scene, he films Hulot visiting a friend’s home entirely through his apartment’s large picture windows, but shows equal interest in what’s going on next door, and the symmetry between the neighbors’ actions and lives.
And… now we’re all Peeping Toms
Other subtle changes and observations begin to dawn on you as well. There’s no score in the beginning, but as we transition into our final tableau, a restaurant on an opening night it’s not nearly ready for, music and chaos begin to seep in, and the everpresent subtle, observant comedy moves from sharp lampooning of modern life, consumerism, shutterbug tourism, and conformity into a gentler, more humane, and more raucous laughter as these worker bees and herd-like tourists drink and dance, the restaurant falls apart, patterns are exploded and the collective bursts into cathartic individuality. As Philip Kemp pointed out, lines become curves, and it’s a better world for it.
Francois Truffaut wrote that it is “a film that comes from another planet, where they make films differently”, and that’s exactly what I felt- it’s truly like nothing I’ve ever seen before.