Jacques Tati - Playtime (1967)
Monday, July 30, 2007
In an article titled "The Death of Hulot" originally published in Sight & Sound in 1983, film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum gave Jacques Tati's Playtime its most apt description: "the masterpiece that wrecked his career."
A decade in the making and, at the time, the most expensive film ever made in France, Playtime is indeed a cinematic masterpiece, and it indeed ruined Tati financially. He would go on to make two more films, Trafic (1972) and Parade (1974), but neither would come close to touching the achievement of Playtime and its simple, yet profound, observations of human life in the increasingly alienating modern world.
Of course, it is impossible to fully appreciate Playtime without having seen the two films that preceded it, M. Hulot's Holiday (1953), which introduced audiences to Tati's near-silent screen clown Monsieur Hulot, and Mon Oncle (1958), which used Hulot as a peripheral character in a study of two competing worlds, the old and the new. Tati and his cinematic alter-ego, Hulot, were both firmly rooted in the old world, symbolized in Hulot's pleasantly rough working-class neighborhood.
Playtime is borne directly out of Mon Oncle, with the difference being that there is no longer a competition between the two worlds: The old has lost, and the realm of sterile modernization--of synthetic black chairs, glass and steel skyscrapers, and glossy waxed floors--has prevailed. The only time glimpses of the old world we catch in Playtime are literally dim reflections in glass doors and windows. The rest of Paris has been subsumed by mindless progress and has devolved into an alien, but strikingly recognizable futuristic cityscape.
Of course, the Paris in Playime has never really existed. Built almost entirely on studio lots at great expense, the Paris we see here is a projection, Tati's imagination of the worst possible outcome of modernization in which all remnants of the old--the fully human--have been wiped away in the pursuit of cleanliness, order, and convenience. For Tati, this meant the erasure of all that was wonderful about humanity, and he literalizes this in the film by filling the distant background of his shots with cardboard stand-ins for people that don't do anything except take up space.
Like M. Hulot's Holiday and Mon Oncle, Playtime has no real plot to speak of. Tati simply follows his hero, Monsieur Hulot--always recongizable in the crowd with his pleasantly goofy stride and signature raincoat, hat, umbrella, and argyle socks--over the course of a day in Paris. He is ostensibly there to make an appointment in an office building, but it never comes about because of a series of misadventures and accidents. He ends up running into some old friends, and eventually winds up in a polished high-class restaurant that is the epitome of posh blandness.
In Playtime, we can see Tati's signature visual style reach the apotheosis of its subtle creativity. Few directors have ever reached the venerable auteur status with so few films to their credit (Tati only directly six features in his lifetime), yet few directors have been so unique and consistent in their cinematic vision as Tati. Playtime is composed almost entirely of static long and medium shots--there is not a single close-up to be found, and when the camera moves, it is usually a short dolly. Tati doesn't draw attention to any one thing in the frame because there is always more than one thing going on (this is why his films demand multiple viewings).
Playtime is by far his most complex work in terms of mis en scene. This was Tati's first use of widescreen, and he made the most of it, shooting the film in 70mm, the scope and detail of which gave him that much more of a canvas on which to work. His compositions are exquisite, deftly capturing the modern world and the people in it. There is no main character here; Hulot moves through the action, but he is rarely the center of attention. Rather, Tati's camera is fascinated by interactions--interactions among people, interactions between people and their environment, and even interactions among various parts of the environment itself.
Tati constructs the modern world as nearly monochromatic--most of the architecture is glass and cold steel, but even the interiors are bland and gray, from the office building, to the restaurant, to his friend's apartment. It seems that what bothers Tati the most about modernism is the lack of contrast, the uniformity of the world. This is perhaps best realized in a throwaway sequence in a travel agency, where the posters on the wall advertise trips to Mexico, Hawaii, and Stockholm, yet each poster features a picture of an interchangeable glass office building. The modern disdain for the ancient is best represented in a scene in a shopping mall in which reproducible remnants of ancient Greece are turned in kitschy garage cans.
Tati keeps the film rolling with his unique brand of comedy, which by this point he had fine-tuned to a near-perfect art. Tati's comedy is constructed of timing and composition. He doesn't guide the viewer to the joke, but rather lets him find it for himself. Tati is also fond of running gags, such as the doorman who continues to hold out a door handle and act as though he is opening a plate-glass door even though Hulot broke it. There are moments of great hilarity scattered throughout Playtime, but mostly you just marvel at Tati's invention and audacity. Playtime is certainly a masterpiece, and it can only be said that it is a shame that it wrecked Tati's career.
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at 12:33 PM