A man approaches a uniformed doorman from the sidewalk, holds up a cigarette, and casually asks for a light. The doorman waves his hand and tells him to “go around.” The camera drifts back to reveal the huge pane of glass separating the figures, so spotless that the man (as well as the audience) initially fails to perceive its existence. This ground-floor window of a modern and sterile building, an invisible barrier of progress, forces the man to walk to the entrance to receive his desired light; the shot, at once a joke and a lament, indicates the presence of a master.
Who else could be responsible for Playtime (1967) but the great Jacques Tati? The production of this meticulous masterpiece was so prolonged and disastrous that the film stands as both the apex of his career and the cause of its ruin. Playtime addresses some heavy themes, among them the alienation of the individual in the modern world, the unforeseen complications arising from technological developments that promise to make life easier, and the harmful effects of corporate, homogeneous architecture on cities around the world. Tati cloaks these concerns in charm, optimism, and hilarity, developing his comedic material out of our collective tendency toward clumsiness and error, despite our wishes to the contrary, and ultimately celebrating this imperfection as the foundation of spontaneity, creativity, and human compassion.
Some films are the result of a director gone mad and such is the case with Playtime. Tati shot the film in 70mm and practically built an entire city for its production, complete with functioning streetlights, miniature skyscrapers on wheels, and enough electricity to power a small town. The final product was huge in every aspect except profit. Its failure at the box office, coupled with its enormous cost, ensured that Tati’s career would never fully recover. Tati himself offered the best expression of the film’s damage upon his financial situation: “I had a house before Playtime. I don’t have my house today.” Yet this bankruptcy-inducing disaster is one of the most unique viewing experiences in the history of cinema.
The gargantuan frames that confront us in Playtime brim with activity, resulting in an engaging film that offers the viewer the choice of what to watch in each scene. Such a generous structure rewards multiple viewings and many will find themselves laughing at jokes they failed to notice the first and second time around. Tati’s camera records the human comedy from a distance, allowing us to view it as a system powered by foibles, disasters, and misunderstandings. How often is it that the members of a film’s audience find themselves concerned more with the movements of the characters as opposed to dialogue (minimal) and plot (vaguely absent)? In this sense Playtime is something of a hilarious ballet and Tati its inspired choreographer. The graceless dance of its characters provides most of the laughs.
Tati distributes the jokes democratically among the mostly anonymous cast. We can almost label everyone in this film a comedian of sorts. This differs remarkably from the efforts of most screen comics, from Keaton and Chaplin to the Marx Brothers, who tended to act as the nucleus for the chaos orbiting around them. Tati did not employ his bumbling but endearing cinematic alter ego Monsieur Hulot as the central character of Playtime; rather, Monsieur Hulot often finds himself stumbling into the center of the action and back to the periphery of the scene like so many of the extras crowding about. This is a film in which either nobody is an extra or everybody is an extra.
The notion that Playtime condemns uniformity and celebrates spontaneity becomes apparent in the infamously intricate “nightclub sequence,” wherein the proud staff of a chic Parisian restaurant struggle to complete some last-minute construction with an urgency approaching panic as their fashionable guests arrive for the grand opening. The club deteriorates amidst deadpan reactions from the wait staff and stiff interactions between the guests. Monsieur Hulot arrives and, true to his unintentionally destructive character, immediately breaks the glass door to the consternation of the doorman (who learns quickly that he can hold the doorknob in place without anyone realizing the door is missing) and later quite literally brings down the roof. It’s a descent into the carnivalesque, a riotous celebration wrought by intoxication and error, a blossoming of human interaction previously denied by the imposing buildings and the rigid movement of the figures darting about the maze of their interiors.
Monsieur Hulot and the exhausted guests emerge from the nightclub as the sun gradually rises above the buildings. Color blossoms brilliantly in the form of ribbons, balloons, clothes, decorations, automobiles, and street signs, contrasting sharply with the mostly grey tones presented earlier. Children, a species omitted from most of the film’s narrative, suddenly dot the sidewalk, smiling in awe at the exciting world twirling around them. The score, a beautiful waltz, invites us to marvel at the transformation of this soulless district of Paris into a spectacular carnival. The shots that reveal cars in a roundabout mimicking the slow rotation of a carousel are simply poetic. This final sequence might be Tati’s way of suggesting that “playtime” is necessary for any human being, no matter what age or social position, to dispel the harm created by our unconscious conspiracy to dull existence with stress and work. This manifests itself in a particularly beautiful shot: a young boy standing on a street corner blows a disastrous note on a toy trumpet. A stiff-looking man in a suit gently removes the trumpet from the boy’s hand and raises it to his lips to produce a brief, tidy, and instructive note of his own before handing it back to its patient little owner.
Playtime is presented in its original aspect ratio (anamorphically enhanced) of 1.85:1. According to the Criterion DVD booklet, a “35mm reduction internegative, made from the restored 65mm interpositive,” was used for the digital transfer. It would be wise to view this on the largest television screen available. Although viewing the DVD won’t replicate the experience of a 70mm projection in a crowded theater, Criterion has presented us with a beautiful version of the film that one can delve into at leisure. The remastered soundtrack is thankfully crisp, as the creative sound design is a crucial element of any Jacques Tati film.
In terms of extras, what you’ll find here are mostly anecdotes about the infamous production with sprinklings of interpretation, which is the case with the audio commentary delivered by film historian Philip Kemp, the introduction by Terry Jones, and the video interview with Tati’s script supervisor Sylvette Baudrot. An essay by Jonathan Rosenbaum pairs an analysis of Playtime with an account of the critic’s personal experiences with both the film and its creator. Au-delà de “Playtime” gives us the gift of rare footage of the production. “Jacques Tati in Monsieur Hulot’s Work,” a BBC documentary from 1976, intersperses interviews with Tati with footage from his films. An audio interview with Tati from the 1972 San Francisco International Film Festival sheds some amusing light on his cinematic technique. Perhaps the most interesting feature is the meta-slapstick of Cours du soir (1967), a short film in which Tati and a group of students discuss and practice the art of observation and mimicry.