An Appreciation – Playtime
An interesting thing happened as I prepared to write about Jacques Tati’s Playtime (1967). I placed the movie in the video player and sat down with a pad and pen, ready to take notes. Quickly, I found myself having to stop and restart certain scenes, having missed a little detail because I was preoccupied with writing down my thoughts. My eyes kept darting around the screen, hoping to take in as much as I possibly could. I’ve seen it plenty of times before, but I had to rewind it after routinely seeing something new. Eventually I put the pad and pen down, sat back, and let it all wash over me. This is a film that is so rich, so layered, with so many moving parts, that by turning away for even a moment, a rewarding bit of information can be lost. A single viewing may not be sufficient enough.
The architect of this world is Jacques Tati, the writer, director, and actor best known for his iconic French character, Mr. Hulot. Like Charlie Chaplin’s lovable Tramp or Buster Keaton’s stone-faced incarnations, Hulot occupies his world like a fish out of water. Often sporting a hat, an umbrella cane, high pants and a pipe, Tati plays the character like a proper gentleman, albeit one who is oblivious to his surroundings. He has a wonderful charm and sweetness about him, in the way he tries to maneuver around his environments awkwardly, often finding himself in humorous situations as a result. It’s as though Tati was transported from the silent era into modern French society, where technology was rapidly advancing and social norms were evolving.
Playtime came after Tati’s successes Mr. Hulot’s Holiday (1953) and Mon Oncle (1958), which won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. By the time he started production here, Tati played the Hulot character for nearly fourteen years, and was ready to move on. This was intended to be his magnum opus, and he approached it as such. It was the most expensive French film made at the time, incorporating one of the largest sets ever constructed. Office buildings, airport terminals, roads, cafes, grocery stores, and restaurants were built – some fully operational. Background characters appear to number in the hundreds. It’s awe-inspiring to see this living, breathing place working organically. The set was so large it was nicknamed “Tativille.” Sadly, the production was so costly and time consuming (funding took nearly a decade, filming took over two years), that the poor box office return put Tati in tremendous debt, forcing him to file for bankruptcy.
Removed from the financial hardship, we can now view the film as the masterpiece it is. All of Tati’s work was building up to this, a grand expression of his skills. But what makes it brilliant is how he takes this enormous canvas, and paints a picture that is intricate, with tiny fine points. Tati was an expert in observation, and took that ability a step further here. It was shot in 70mm to create a frame wide enough to capture the scope of the sets and the people moving within them. He never went for a close up, nearly every person is photographed from the waist up or displaying their full body. Tati made the shots this large so he can put as much into sight as possible. We notice there is constant action happening in every part of the frame. While two people are talking in the upper right hand corner in the background, something else maybe happening at the exact same time in the bottom left hand corner in the foreground. By utilizing deep focus to make every aspect sharp, we tend to move our eyes in many different directions, because a lot is happening simultaneously.
Tati gives this to us gradually. The opening scene has a nice simplicity to it. We’re in what looks like a hospital, with two nuns walking down a hallway. There is an elderly couple sitting down chatting. A janitor slowly moves into frame, looking around the room. Suddenly, a group of tourists walk in, and then an airplane pilot, and then a foreign diplomat surrounded by paparazzi. We quickly realize the room is not part of a hospital, but is in fact an airport terminal. And now, instead of a having just a few characters, we have dozens, all traveling in different ways.
Notice how the buildings all look exactly the same, with their drab, grey, lifeless colors. See how all the cars appear identical, with the same color palette, parked together in perfect unison. Right away, Tati gets to the heart of his theme. He points toward modernization, technology, and orderly efficiency. By creating Tativille like a soulless place made of steel, stone, and glass, he’s commenting on the increasing transformation of society. Look closely at the travel posters decorated throughout. They show a beautiful vacation spot, obstructed from view by the same boring skyscraper. In particular moments, glass doors reflect the images of the Eiffel Tower, or the Church of the Sacred Heart in Montmarte. Tati is suggesting a world outside of industry and modernism, but this does not necessarily mean what he’s saying is hopeless or mean spirited. The tone has an earnest quality; there is no bite or cynicism pervading the humor. If anything, Tati is viewing society not with anger but with bewilderment. He doesn’t hate what is happening, but is scratching his head over how confusing it all is.