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Playtime (1967)

Tempo di divertimento

Directed by:

Jacques Tati

Rating: 8/10

Running Time: 119 minutes

UK Certificate: U

On DVD

Country: France, Italy

The French comic director Jacques Tati was born Tatischeff, grandson of the Imperial Russian military attaché in Paris – but on his film sets he was nicknamed 'Tatillon', the French for 'pernickety', because of his excessive fastidiousness and insistence on endless retakes. Following the international success of his previous two films featuring the bumbling Monsieur Hulot ('Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot' and 'Mon Oncle'), Tati embarked on the altogether more ambitious 'Playtime', where his renowned perfectionism led to the construction of vast artificial sets, an arduous three-year shoot, and a budget which spiralled out of control. The film received somewhat mixed notices from the French press, and did not get released onto the crucial US market until five years later in a butchered version missing over half an hour of footage. Tati was ruined.

Subsequently 'Playtime' has come under considerable critical reassessment, and while not everyone will agree that it is Tati's masterpiece (to my mind that will always be 'Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot'), it is certainly a work of great genius – sprawling yet gentle, reactionary yet boldly experimental, almost without plot yet full of minutely observed events. Set over a twenty-four period in a Parisian cityscape of airports, motorways and skyscrapers (where the more traditional sights like the Eiffel Tower and Sacre Cœur are glimpsed only fleetingly as reflections in the glass doors of buildings), 'Playtime' follows the occasionally crossing paths of Monsieur Hulot (played as ever by Tati) on an unspecified business errand, and of a young American tourist (Barbara Dennek) determined to see 'the real Paris', as they both risk being engulfed by the depersonalised modernity around them – except that the trail of havoc which the accident-prone Hulot leaves through every office building and restaurant that he visits ensures that out of the soulless rigidity of these environments there rises again a warped humanity, with all its comic flaws.

'Playtime' is like a comic, carnivalesque version of Kafka. Expanding upon ideas already explored in 'Mon Oncle', Tati targets the dehumanising effects of modernist architecture, electronic gadgetry, bureaucracy, package tourism and pretentiousness with a brand of satire that is absurdist rather than vicious. It is a film that looks and sounds like no other. Filmed in crisp 70mm format, it is composed almost entirely of wide or long shots, so that the viewer is left to explore each lengthy take for the many background attractions and amusements in much the same way as Hulot and the tourist explore the city. So numerous are the sight gags, and so generously spread across the screen, that it is easy to miss them on first viewing – a principle best exemplified by the lengthy restaurant scene in the film's second half, which starts off slow and restrained, and quickly descends into a crowded, frenetic bacchanalia at which every character from every previous scene, as well as many new ones, appear to be present. In this total absence of close-ups, it becomes as easy for viewers as for the characters to confuse the 'real' Hulot with the many impostors who populate the set, all sporting his familiar raincoat, umbrella and pipe – while Tati appears not only as Hulot, but as various background figures involved in 'directing' activities (a policeman signalling to traffic, a workman supervising the installation of a window).

The soundtrack is just as sumptuous and disorienting, featuring some hilariously over-the-top sound effects over a polyglot babble of half-heard snatches of conversation, preverbal mumblings and general gibberish, all set to lounge music and jazz. If no-one (not even Hulot) ever really takes centre stage, that is because it is the stage itself – the complex, buzzing city – that is the true main character, in this sweet, slightly melancholic film which captures the very essence of charm on an unprecedentedly large scale.

It's Got: A vast city space full of wondrously minute details; malfunctioning contraptions; a pretentious new restaurant out of whose ruin emerges an intimate but inclusive bistro; a lot of glass (and a lot of jokes involving glass); and the eternal struggle between regimented order and unbridled chaos.

It Needs: To be watched attentively, and more than once - this really is a film saturated with background detail.

DVD Extras A digital transfer of the film to ratio 1.85:1 (16x9 anamorphic), using the longest available version (lovingly restored in 2002); scene selection; optional English subtitles, as well as subtitles for the hard of hearing; audio commentary by film historian Philip Kemp (with an unusual but welcome option to view the commentary in subtitled form while listening to the original soundtrack), featuring a wealth of background information on the production, fine analysis of scenes and pointing out of easily missed details, and anecdotes (not always favourable) about Tatis behaviour on set; Au-delà de Playtime (6min, with optional subtitles for the hard of hearing), a documentary including footage of the construction and subsequent destruction of Tativille (Tatis mammoth studio set for the cityscape and office interiors) and comments on the blighted production; a 12min interview (optional English subtitles) with the films continuity supervisor, Sylvette Baudrot, in which she discusses Tatis difficult genius and the production history behind particular scenes; Tati Story (21min, optional English subtitles), a comprehensive biographical film on Tati, concluding with an image of two model skyscrapers on the set of Playtime wheeled apart to reveal Tati entering a humble shack; trailer reel (Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot, Mon Oncle, Playtime); a bio of Tati. DVD Extras Rating: 10/10

Alternatives:

Brazil, Les Triplettes de Belleville, Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot, Mon Oncle

Summary

This gentle, dialogue-free satire of the ups and downs of modern city life puts charm on an unprecedentedly grand scale.

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