Jacques Tati | 1hr 55min
Playtime opens with a chaotic jazz track of frenzied drums and an electric keyboard against a cloudy sky, though it won’t be until we reach the final act about ninety minutes in that we will come across anything close to this anarchic again. The Paris of Jacques Tati’s slightly futuristic France is a highly curated assortment of rigid lines and boxes, fastidiously fitting workers into cubicles, citizens into apartments, and tourists into buses. His regular silent buffoon, Monsieur Hulot, doesn’t mean to disrupt this tidy, bureaucratic order, but letting a force of innocent curiosity loose in a city of inefficient processes and absurd designs does not bode well for either party.
In real life, the sprawling city set was dubbed Tativille, and pushed Playtime’s budget so far that it claimed the record for the most expensive French film ever produced. This isn’t surprising either – anything less simply would not have satisfied Tati’s extravagant metropolitan vision, built out of large, meticulous set pieces as sharp in their visual design as they are in their social satire.
By breaking his film up into vignettes that wander from one set piece to the next, Tati keeps a lax approach to traditional plotting, allowing for an organic exploration of his bizarre, monochrome vision of Paris. This is a city of metal and glass, shiny and sleek in its smooth textures, but also completely soulless. The charm of old-fashioned French culture only exists in small glimpses – a street florist contributing a few pops of colour to an otherwise drab sidewalk, and an elusive reflection of the Eiffel Tower in a glass door as it swings open. Everywhere else in this environment of harsh angles and parallel lines, there is barely a curve to be found. For Tati, this is an absolute triumph of set design and architecture, relying on these purely visual elements to tell a story of innocent romance and mindless conformity that dialogue alone cannot convey.
It is just as much his immaculate framing of the city as it is his monumental production design which isolates his characters from each other, as there are so many vertical dividers between windows and walls that it is almost impossible for anyone to stand anywhere without being boxed in. His deep focus photography serves well in capturing the breadth and scale of these colossal sets, but it serves a comedic purpose too in the staging of his visual gags, making full use of the frame in all its layers and obstructions. As Hulot sits at the end of an extra-long hallway in an office building, the man he is waiting to meet appears down the other end and begins to make the long journey from the background to the foreground. And then, in awkward silence, we wait some more. Very gradually, the man gets larger, and yet the comically long corridor just keeps on stretching the scene into oblivion.
Elsewhere in this office building, Tati confuses a pair of identical doors that lead to very different locations, observes a call operator confuse himself with a switchboard of buttons and dials, and discovers a labyrinth of cubicles ergonomically designed to cut its workers off from all human contact. So much striving for progress has effectively neutered this society’s functionality, to the point that what should be an epicentre of human innovation has become an absurdly convoluted playground. Should one manage to escape from it, as Hulot eventually does, there is no guarantee they will make it back inside the same building – all across this city are identical structures one could easily end up in instead.
It is in one of those buildings where Hulot comes across a trade exhibition of various pointless inventions. A broom with headlights attracts a small crowd, and a door that can slam silently is on show too. Perhaps the greatest display though is ‘Thro-Out Greek Style’ which turns ancient Greek columns into flip-top bins, tastelessly commercialising history for cheap profit. If we were to theorise that it is perhaps just this corner of the world that has succumbed to modernity, we are proven wrong when Hulot comes across a series of travel posters advertising famous international destinations, amusingly representing each one with the same dreary city buildings we have already seen here in Paris.
“Ultra-modern” is the word citizens proudly use to describe the impersonal style of their architecture and interior design, though there is nothing that looks particularly comfortable about it. Perhaps public buildings can get away with conforming to the same cookie-cutter moulds, but the stacking of identical apartments on top of each other like glass display cases saps the personal lives inside of anything that makes them remotely unique or intimate. Even as Monsieur Hulot enters one of these flats to visit his friend, Tati keeps his camera on the outside, observing the grid of windows from a distance where we can see neighbours going about their own ordinary, unexciting business. At times the camera is positioned in such a manner that we can’t even see the walls dividing the apartments, creating the illusion that their inhabitants are conversing with each other in a unified space. We know better than that though – such a connection between strangers is but a dream in this world of arbitrary barriers.
Our only hope that some quaint European charm might live on lies in the converging paths of Monsieur Hulot and Barbara, an American tourist desperately searching for the France of her dreams. As they find each other in a chic, modern restaurant, its geometric and architectural perfection falls to pieces around them, and Tati turns this ordered environment into one of unbridled chaos. It starts small with a floor tile that keeps getting stuck to shoes, revealing a small structural flaw in this room held together by glue, and then the glass door at the front smashes to pieces, forcing a staff member to hold the handle in place and mime opening it for guests. A spiral neon sign on the ceiling leads drunk customers around in circles, pretensions of restraint go out the door when the jazz musicians are replaced by an erratic, impromptu performance, and then, with one swift motion, Tati collapses a ceiling decoration, marking his infrastructure with a higgledy-piggledy arrangement of wooden planks and exposed wires. This uncontrolled mess is the perfect meet-cute for what appears to be the only two people in Paris who long for simpler, scruffier times.
With his slapstick gags and production design carrying so much of the storytelling, Tati’s scripted dialogue remains notably minimal. Rather than functioning to convey detailed information, it simply melds into the sound design where every other aural cue is accentuated. The loud clacking of shoes on hard floors and the constant hum of fluorescent lights tell us just as much about these environments as the nasally drawl of American tourists or the slick sales pitch of a creatively bankrupt entrepreneur.
Of course, cinema is a visual medium though, and Tati recognises it as such in his exacting formal precision, never failing to put his rigorously designed mise-en-scène front and centre. That he can draw out such playful beauty from a society so void of individuality speaks to his craftsmanship as a comedian and filmmaker, especially in the closing minutes where he leads a balletic dance of cars along the city streets, circling roundabouts in never-ending loops and bouncing in time to carousel music. For all its light-hearted social satire, Playtime remains an intricately stacked construction of gags and set pieces, as monumentally ambitious as it is methodically delicate.
Playtime is currently streaming on SBS On Demand and The Criterion Channel, and is available to rent or buy on iTunes.