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Jacques Tati was at the height of his popular success and critical acclaim when he embarked on Playtime (1967), the most ambitious and expensive production in his career. Mon Oncle (1958) had been a huge hit, both in France and internationally, and won a Jury Prize at Cannes and the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. Mr. Hulot was a comic icon but Tati wasn't interested in the comic opportunities of the lone figure in the world. He wanted to turn the camera out to the theater on display in the streets, "to make a film without the character of Hulot, with nothing but the people whom I see, whom I observe, whom I pass in the street." It took nine years from the release of Mon Oncle to the completion and release of Playtime, his masterpiece. Tati wasn't able to completely divorce himself from his onscreen alter ego and Hulot does appear in Playtime, but he's less a leading man than a member of the ensemble.
A film comedy directed with the grace of a ballet, the painstaking detail of an action painting and the affection of a love song, Playtime is one of the most sublime celebrations of individualism in the alienated landscape of modern urban life and consumer culture. This is a different kind of symphony of a city, conducted with rising and falling rhythms that segue from one movement to another over the course of a single day into the night and finally emerging into the dawn. Has a satire of the human behavior in the mechanistic urban world ever been so affectionate? The difference between Chaplin's Modern Times (1936) and Tati's Playtime is right there in the title: for Tati, there is a joy and wonder and fun in it all.
There's no real "story" to the film, yet hundreds of tiny little stories can be found playing out in Tati's widescreen images. Tourists arrive in an airport terminal with all the personality of an office building. In the swirl of organized chaos arrives Tati's signature character, the gangly Mr. Hulot, decked out in his trademark overcoat and hat and clutching his familiar umbrella, on his way to a business meeting in the city. The tourists are efficiently shuttled off to busses for their whirlwind Paris visit, but this isn't the Paris of ancient brick buildings and romantic bridges and historical monuments, but of skyscrapers of steel and walls of glass looking out onto paved streets packed with commuters and busses and pedestrians in a hurry. As the tourists gawk at the marvels of new inventions and contemporary creature comforts, one young woman (Barbara Dennek) with a dreamy look in her eyes longs for the romantic Paris that is only fleetingly glimpsed in reflections of car windows and glass doors. Meanwhile, Hulot finds himself lost in the maze of office cubicles and glassed-in waiting rooms while trying to track down a business associate, dwarfed by the size and scale of the coldly impersonal surroundings as he meets indifferent efficiency with comic individualism. The last half of the film takes place at the grand opening of a brand new nightclub, a mini-movie of its own that opens with workmen and waiters rushing the final details as the first night crowds arrive. It's a model of modernity where every design flaw becomes glaringly apparent over the disastrous evening, but out of the slow collapse of the club's dignified façade comes a human revolution, a magical idiosyncratic order created out of fun and laughter and social egalitarianism rising from the chaos.
Even if the city lends itself to the impersonal by design and imposing architecture that dwarfs the human scale, the inhabitants can still make it into a village, where old friends run into each other and make a human contact impossible in the business settings. Film critic and historian Jonathan Rosenbaum observes that the film "unfolds entirely in a public space defined by that set." In one of the film's most perfectly choreographed scenes, Hulot visits a family in their new downtown apartment, a living space as coolly impersonal as any office building. Yet we remain on the street, looking in through the proscenium arch of their living room picture window as if it was a piece of theater on a giant television screen. As the camera pulls back, the screen is filled with multiple windows and lives played out in antiseptic boxes passing as homes. "We belong to a civilization that feels the need to put itself in a shop window," Tati explained in an interview. The scene owes the visual concept to Jerry Lewis but the sublime choreography of the multiple mimed dramas, moving in tandem with and counterpoint to one another, is all Tati.
Hulot's presence is prominent but not defining - he's the first in the chorus, you might say (the film makes a running joke of seeing Hulots in every tall man with a hat, overcoat and umbrella, as if the audience expects Hulot in every scene). But as the film drifts from day to night, Hulot recedes into the chorus, becoming just one among many in his sprawling ensemble of colorful figures whose personalities triumph over the uniformity of the urban world. Tati's ensemble is made up largely of amateurs, cast for their look and personality rather than acting skill (the most prominent of the American tourists is played by a young German au pair who Tati discovered working for a family on his own street). They arrived on the set without knowing what the film was even about, and left having carved out vivid moments in a comedy masterpiece.
Where so many comedy directors create humor from the outrageous exaggeration of images and situations, Tati creates his from an accumulation of minor touches, little dissonances, imaginative observations and pieces of creative business: hundreds of details that erupt with lives of their own but fit together like a clockwork mechanism with a human heartbeat. That kind of perfection demands complete control over every aspect of filmmaking. To guarantee that control, Tati built his own city-set on the outskirts of Paris. Dubbed "Tativille," it was a working city center in its own right, with fully-functional buildings (complete with power and running water), carved up into offices and showrooms connected by working escalators and automatic doors, with working streets with traffic lights outside. The film was shot over the course of three years on 70mm film, the cinematic high-definition format usually reserved for expensive costume epics. Tati used the sharpness and clarity of the large-gauge film format so that the hundreds of tiny details could be picked out in the breadth and scope of massive widescreen canvass. The five track stereo soundtrack was likewise created and mixed under his complete control, adding accents and counterpoint to the movement and drama onscreen. Even the dialogue is unimportant in terms of plot. In sharp contrast to conventional filmmaking, Tati mixes the voices down until they are merely just another instrument in the music of the urban symphony, the multiple languages simply adding more color and life to the film.
All that perfection came at an enormous cost. Tati was forced to sell the rights of his earlier productions to raise money to meet the escalating budget. Playtime debuted at 152 minutes in an exclusive 70mm run. He trimmed the running time by 15 minutes for a subsequent 35mm general release, and then later down to about two hours for American release, but by then the film's financial failure had bankrupted Tati. According to Rosenbaum (who briefly worked as Tati's assistant on an unrealized film project in the early seventies), Tati re-edited a final version in 1982, shortly before his death. The most complete version today runs 124 minutes.
Playtime ends on the gridlocked traffic as the bus of tourists heads out to the next destination on the itinerary. Whether Tati intended or not, it anticipates his next film, Trafic, but the director himself stated that he wanted Playtime to be considered his final work. It certainly is the culmination of his ambition and his art, and it has belatedly been embraced as a masterpiece of comic filmmaking. "I'm proud of Playtime, it's exactly the picture I wanted to make," he's been quoted as saying. "I've suffered a lot because of it, physically and financially, but it's really the film I wanted to do."
In his review of the film, Roger Ebert wrote, "Jacques Tati's Playtime, like 2001: A Space Odyssey or The Blair Witch Project or Russian Ark, is one of a kind, complete in itself, a species already extinct at the moment of its birth. Even Mr. Hulot, Tati's alter ego, seems to be wandering through it by accident. Instead of plot it has a cascade of incidents, instead of central characters it has a cast of hundreds, instead of being a comedy it is a wondrous act of observation. It occupies no genre and does not create a new one. It is a filmmaker showing us how his mind processes the world around him."
Producer: Bernard Maurice
Director: Jacques Tati
Screenplay: Jacques Lagrange, Jacques Tati; Art Buchwald (additional English dialogue)
Cinematography: Jean Badal, Andras Winding
Music: Francis Lemarque
Film Editing: Gerard Pollicand
Cast: Jacques Tati (Monsieur Hulot), Barbara Dennek (Young Tourist), Rita Maiden (Mr. Schultz's Companion), France Rumilly (Woman Selling Eyeglasses), France Delahalle (Department Store shopper), Valerie Camille (Mr. Lacs's Secretary), Erika Dentzler (Mme. Giffard), Nicole Ray (Singer), Yvette Ducreux (Hat Check Girl).
by Sean Axmaker