Playtime (1967)

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.

Tati’s magnificent use of architecture as character rivals Michelangelo Antonioni – the main difference being everything in Playtime is an artificial set, uniting under a singular comedic vision.

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.

Glimpses of old-fashioned Paris in the street florist and Eiffel Tower reflection, though both are swallowed up by the harsh metallic greys of the city.

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.

An impressive commitment to the staging of visual gags, using the full depth of the frame to send up the inefficient layout of the office building.
Wall-length windows become glass boxes, containing Hulot inside rigid, artificial structures and making for some superb displays of set design.

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.

A room of grey office cubicles, trapping its workers in claustrophobic boxes and Hulot in a confusing labyrinth.

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.

The inventiveness of Tati’s gags are hilarious – ‘Thro-Out Greek Style’.
Travel posters to USA, Hawaii, Mexico, Stockholm, each one represented by the exact same drab building.

“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.

Apartments designed like display cases, each one as impersonal and generic as the next.
Tati hides the wall between these apartments, and you could swear it looks like these people share a single room. His indictment of modern society’s arbitrary divisions is scathing.

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.

Keeping up appearances after the glass door has shattered, holding the door knob in place for no real purpose.
Chaos erupts across Tati’s mise-en-scène in a tangled mess.

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.

Vehicles move like amusement park rides in the final minutes, as Tati turns the city into a carnival set on top of carousel music.

Playtime is currently streaming on SBS On Demand and The Criterion Channel, and is available to rent or buy on iTunes.

The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967)

Jacques Demy | 2hr 5min

In the small French city of Rochefort, seven hours outside Paris, musicians, painters, dancers, and carnies idle around, longing after whimsical dreams they believe will manifest elsewhere. That anyone would want to leave this pastel-coloured paradise seems absurd – where else could one bump into Gene Kelly walking down a pristine street, or have their likeness randomly painted by a mysterious, dreamy stranger? It is telling that the departure of Delphine, a beautiful young dance teacher, also becomes a deadline for her to finally find the man she has been seeking this whole time, and the question of whether the two entwined paths will meet becomes a source of enchanting suspense. Little do these men and women realise how close their romantic ideals are, even as they remain just barely out of sight.

The central predicaments which plague this ensemble of characters seem to be the inverse of those which haunt Lola, the first in Jacques Demy’s Romantic Trilogy, where the ghosts of old lovers trap men and women in wistful, nostalgic memories. The Young Girls of Rochefort possesses some yearning for the past, but it is predominantly towards the bright, hopeful future that our characters direct their attention, as they hang onto pieces of art and music that evoke their creator’s essence. Lola and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg certainly both revel in the exuberance of expressive musical numbers, and yet there is no bittersweet edge present here. Instead, there is a wonderfully formal use of dramatic irony in the multitude of coincidences that keep bringing these sweethearts close enough to touch, only to let them finally collide in marvellously grandiose expressions of love.

The all-white music shop makes for a wonderful set piece several times, but especially in this swooning romantic finale between Gene Kelly and Catherine Deneuve.

The Young Girls of Rochefort opens with what might as well be a musical warm-up for both performers and director alike, as a caravan of carnival trucks arrive in town atop a cable ferry. This slow crossing of the river provides the perfect chance for the travellers to jump out and stretch in synchronicity to the overture, though the actual landing heralds the first major dance number of the film, and an introduction to Rochefort itself – a city where orange trucks, pink fire hydrants, and blue window shutters burst forth in bright urban landscapes, and where vibrantly dressed strangers accompany each other in leaps and twirls down sidewalks with joyous exuberance. Few other filmmakers have proven as thorough an understanding of colour theory as Demy, whose compositions move beyond photographic and into the realm of truly kinetic cinema through the interweaving of choreography and rich production design.

Demy is a perfectionist when it comes to compositions of colour and movement in stunningly choreographed musical numbers.

On top of that, Demy’s camera floats airily through this space, as we witness early on when it lifts up from the town square into the window of a dance and music studio, where our two main characters are finishing up a class. Delphine and Solange Garnier are a pair of twins “born in the sign of Gemini”,an auspicious omen that grounds their very existences in coincidences and good fortune. After observing the fair being set up outside, the two suddenly turn and snap to the camera, and with that sudden shift they launch into the opening musical number as a manner of introduction. The days of songs emerging organically from narratives are gone – like so many other auteurs of the French New Wave, Demy is reinvigorating his chosen genre by acknowledging its artifice, letting his actors directly address the camera as if to invite us into their vivid lives.

Symmetrical framing of the twins who can only be distinguished by their clothing and hair colours.
Simply gorgeous attention to detail in the colours of this city and its inhabitants.

Despite this blatant disregard for movie-musical convention, The Young Girls of Rochefort could not be a more jubilant expression of Demy’s love of the genre. These stylish, vivacious films certainly carry the potential to wrestle with deeper psychological quandaries, and there is even a nod to this sort of darkness here in a jarring subplot regarding a violent murder, but even such tragedies cannot exist without simply being brushed aside as the result of romantic passion gone astray. Heartbreaks only ever belong in the past for these men and women, and second chances are handed out to those who wait with patience. In theory, this hearty belief in the inevitability of destiny takes a good deal of power out of the hands of these characters. But as Demy envisions them onscreen, the lovers who inhabit this small, French town are simply caught up in some remarkable force of romance greater than themselves, inspiring in its artistic expressions of dance, music, and outrageously beautiful colours.

So perfectly curated, everything from the ties to the window shutters.

The Young Girls of Rochefort is available to stream on Stan, Binge, and Foxtel Now.

Point Blank (1967)

John Boorman | 1hr 27min

Point Blank could have almost been a conventional crime thriller in some alternate universe. ‘Almost’ is the key word there, because as much as this film straddles a line between high and low art, John Boorman’s manipulation of pulpy violence and a doggedly determined protagonist points towards something a little sharper and more sophisticated than the material would suggest. With great freedom granted to him in the final cut, Point Blank transcends all genre trappings, as Boorman’s confounding plot and leaps in time extracts a dizzying fever dream from the encounters, deals, and interrogations conducted by one wronged man across the city of Los Angeles.

That this man feels such an urge to correct the injustice committed against him is ridiculous in the first place, given that the money stolen from him had already been stolen from someone else. But Walker is not going to let go of $93,000 that easily, especially since the transgressor is a close friend and associate, Reese, who has additionally left him for dead. Theories that everything after his shooting plays out as a hallucination in his dying mind aren’t totally unfounded, though it is worth noting that even in this first scene we are already disorientated by the cutting between three parallel timelines – his recruitment, the operation, and his half-conscious body lying on the floor of a jail cell, pondering the sequence of events leading to this moment. And then, quietly he wonders to himself…

“Did it happen? A dream… a dream.”

Gorgeous avant-garde framing through mirrors.

Answers don’t come easily here, especially given how obfuscated Walker’s character motivations are. The fuss that he is making over such an inconsequential amount of money in his mission for vengeance doesn’t go unnoted by surrounding characters. “Do you mean to say you’d bring down this immense organisation for a paltry $93,000?” remarks one. “Somebody’s gotta pay,” retorts Walker, though Lee Marvin delivers it as less of a threat and more a weak assertion of justice. In this Californian underbelly, he may have once been an intelligent, fearsome figure, and yet now as he chases up loose ends in an ever-unravelling mystery, he simply looks like an old, lost man, falling back on the only thing he has left – his sheer power of will. Marvin was only 43 years old when he shot this film, but in this role he looks as if he could be anywhere upwards of 50, and so even as he marches forward with steadfast conviction in his quest, there is a weariness contained in his performance, and a frustration by the lack of sense in this unsettling urban landscape.

Superb use of architecture all throughout Point Blank, trapping and isolating Walker in a world of hard lines and angles.

But more than just seeming slightly unnerving, these Californian cities which he traverses are also truly formidable in their magnificent structures, overwhelming and isolating Walker with their off-kilter angles and imposing scale. While a narrative comparison might be able to be drawn to Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo in its surreal, wandering descent, visually Point Blank is closer to a Michelangelo Antonioni film in Boorman’s tremendous use of architecture to divide and obstruct characters in an environment of stone, metal, and glass, rigid in its unified patterns.

Stu Gardner as a demented performer framed in a wide, gaping mouth. Even as Walker beats up two other men, he never stops singing.
Red lighting drips down Walker’s face like blood.

The manner in which these surroundings consume their inhabitants is literalised in one particularly demented scene in a night club, in which an unhinged performer who ad libs over a repetitive guitar riff is introduced to us in the centre of a large, gaping mouth projected upon a screen. In the same scene, right after a violent brawl that sees Walker come out on top, his face is drenched in a red neon light, dripping down his face like bright, bloody rain.

And then as if to sink us even deeper into the psychological chaos of Walker’s mission, Boorman leads us through flashbacks which unfold in dreamy montages and slow-motion. The images just float on by as wistful voiceovers play out over the top, almost like if Terrence Malick were to take a dark turn into experimental neo-noir. The narrative jumps around in non-linear patterns, as a kiss shared between Walker and his sister-in-law, Chris, on the floor of her apartment match cuts to her bed, where they continue to embrace. And quite peculiarly, the confused expression on Walker’s face seems to indicate a similar disorientation to our own, as if a chunk of time between both instances has completely disappeared.

Match cuts forwards and backwards through time, constantly throwing us off.

Indeed, Walker is barely a free agent in this constantly shifting world, and he knows it. As Point Blank reaches its denouement, he chases down a disembodied voice speaking over an intercom system, which may as well be his own self-critical inner monologue even if it sounds like Chris’.

“You’re played out. It’s over. You’re finished. What would you do with the money if you got it? It wasn’t yours in the first place. Why don’t you just lay down and die?”

In the face of such overwhelming odds and with such little justification for his own conviction, what else is there to do? Such a quiet relinquishing of power is the only ending that makes sense for a man so desperate to exert his own will over a world that refuses to bow down. And besides, considering the violent deaths ridden all throughout Point Blank, perhaps Walker’s sad, uneventful retreat into the shadows is the best he could have ever really hoped for.

Point Blank is currently available to stream on The Criterion Channel, and available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Google Play.

The Producers (1967)

Mel Brooks | 1hr 28min

Mel Brooks may be a greater writer than he is a director, but there is no holding back in either department when it comes to his film debut, The Producers. He wastes no time in zooming from one plot point to the next like a Marx Brothers routine, and it takes great comedic talents like those of Gene Wilder and Zero Mostel to not just match his brisk pace, but to push it even further. On top of that, The Producers would simply not work if Brooks had anything less than a full ensemble giving it their all in sending up the executives, directors, actors, writers, and even accountants of the musical theatre industry, in all their highly-strung, neurotic quirks.

Brooks’ main and supporting roles take turns playing the fool and the straight man as each scene sees fit, and yet all of their idiosyncrasies are always kept in mind to realise the full comedic potential of each interaction. These are some of Brooks’ best characters, and the groundwork he does in building them up makes for remarkable farcical pay-offs that almost always call back to established running gags and key character traits, from Max Bialystock’s willingness to degrade himself to hysterical lows for money, to Roger De Bris’ vain conviction that self-expression is humanity’s most noble pursuit.

This frenzied opening sequence heightened by manic freeze frames, paired with the opening credits.

Continuing to lift The Producers above many of Brooks’ other directorial efforts is the pure insanity of his editing choices, as he builds the opening credits from freeze frames of Max’s sweaty face in the midst of a playful yet desperate affair with an older woman, trying to extract money from her. Later, Brooks’ set décor vividly complements the lunacy of the characters that inhabit them – the red walls of the restaurant, the blue curtains of the bar, the oranges and whites of Max’s office, and especially the yellow patterned wallpaper of Roger De Bris’ apartment, luridly clashing with the theatre director’s blue, sequinned dress.

Bright, garish production design, always reflecting the insanity of the characters.

Finally, we reach the brazenly offensive musical production, ‘Springtime for Hitler’, complete with pretzel bras and a Busby Berkeley-style dancing swastika. As the camp tastelessness of these artists is revealed in the flamboyant, Nazi regalia, Brooks’ abject, visual artistry fully manifests in all its scandalous glory. And then, just as that reaches its peak, so too does his hilarious send-up of these entitled creators who rip through hallowed topics with reckless abandon, monetising controversy for their own tactless, selfish purposes.

A blend of Nazi regalia and show-stopping Busby Berkeley choreography – the entire ‘Springtime for Hitler’ musical sequence is Brooks at his most comically irreverent, satirising the entertainment industry’s grotesque exploitation of sacrosanct subject matter.

The Producers is available to rent or buy on YouTube.