Jaques Tati, 1967.
Ebert: Four Stars.
Rotten Tomatoes: 100% Fresh
Playtime is one seriously odd movie. I have no idea how it ended up in my “to-watch” pile, so I had no context for it and spent quite a bit of time trying to figure out what the hell was going on. I’ll give you a little orientation here to spare you that kind of confusion.
• This is nominally a film featuring the internationally beloved Jacques Tati slapstick comedy character Mr. Hulot. By the time he got around to making Playtime, however, Tati was sick unto death of Mr. Hulot, so he’s rendered here as shall we say an existentialist deconstruction of himself. I considered this an improvement, personally.
• Tati was a little obsessed with this project, and dumped far more money and time into it than could ever possibly be justified in commercial terms. It is shot in 70 mm, and meant to be projected onto the largest possible screens; I may not have got the full effect watching it on my laptop. Students of the film say that the depth of field, and the amount of activity going on simultaneously in any given frame, make it reward an almost unlimited number of watchings.
• There is no story per se, only a sequential series of six absurdist scenarios.
1: People act peculiar in the sterile environment of an airport. A group of American tourists arrive as does, very inconspicuously, Mr. Hulot.
2: Mr. Hulot attempts to keep a business appointment in a sleek, modern office building. Trapped in Kafkaesque dream logic, he strives ceaselessly to meet the person he needs to see, but runs up against endless obstacles.
3: Mr. Hulot and the American tourists both visit a trade fair featuring bizarre modern innovations.
4: Mr. Hulot is invited to a friend’s apartment; for an unbroken ten minutes or so, we look in at them and the inhabitants of the neighboring apartments from the street, watching their normal/strange activity but hearing only the noises of traffic.
5: A nightclub is still under construction when it is time to open for its first night. The guests begin arriving, and will eventually include Hulot and the Americans. Things start out pretty sedate, but after a while – this episode takes a lot of screen time – the party will get pretty outrageous. At dawn, everybody straggles out.
6: As the Americans take their bus back to the airport, they get caught in a roundabout that begins to imitate a circus carousel.Absurdism! Existentialism! A critique of the modern! This is surely a festival of mid-century intellectual preoccupations, and if it had been released a couple of years after 1959, when Tati thought it up, it might have been a runaway hit. Since it wasn’t released until 1967 in Europe, and in a truncated U.S. version in 1973, it probably missed its moment. But now that ’59, ’67, and ’73 are all safely in the distant past, we don’t really have to worry about that, and can just sit back and enjoy the fun.
And it really is a lot of fun, taken on its own terms. (Taken on other terms, such as “I want a clear storyline” or “I want people to act rationally” or “when the hell is something going to HAPPEN, for crying out loud!” it would be a nightmare.) If you aren’t interested in what’s going on in the foreground, there’s usually something pretty interesting happening in the background, and the set design is pretty delicious to look at in and of itself.
My favorite aspect of the movie was a certain unpredictability in its gags. Again and again, it sets up a slapstick moment that doesn’t happen. An example: As the revelers leave the nightclub, talking about how beautiful Paris is in the early morning, they approach workers who are shoveling muck out of a hole in the pavement. We can tell what is going to happen: as a character pontificates about the beauty of the dawn, he’s going to get a shovel’s worth of mud slopped across his evening clothes. Ha! Except, it doesn’t happen: the workman notices the pedestrians, and stops shoveling to let them pass. This kind of thing happens over and over again in Playtime, messing with our expectations and achieving a kind of comic one-two punch, in which we get to experience the joke-that-doesn't-happen twice, once in anticipation and a second time when it is suddenly jerked away from us.
Playtime is big, strange, and unlike anything else I’ve seen. I’ll want to see it again. I’ll let you know how it goes. If you see it, let me know what you think.
Michael5000's imdb rating: 8.