Jacques Tati's Playtime, is a beautiful film; playful and peculiar; a film unlike any other. It sets itself apart from any other movie before or after it and creates a unique universe similar to Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (which Tati was a huge admirer of) and was Tati's statement on his comic vision of the modern world. Playtime is a film where we as an audience are there to observe its colorful and mysterious characters and be engrossed by its wonderous and peculiar creation. Mr. Hulot who is a recurring character in most of Tati's films is in this film as well, and like us he seems to be wandering throughout the film lost and bewildered. Instead of a standard plot the film centers around several different incidents, and doesn't focus on a simple story. They're no central characters in the film but Playtime has a cast of hundreds, making it more a comedy of wondrous observation. It doesn't occupy any specific genre and is more a visual tour on Tati's mind on how he looks at the world around him. During the production of the film, Playtime was the most expensive film in French history and Tati filmed it in 70mm and in 'Tativille' which was an enormous reproduced set of city streets, high-rise buildings, offices, an airline terminal and a traffic circle. And yet the film was a commercial failure which bankrupted Tati and costed him the ownership of his home, his business and all of his earlier films.
Playtime is structured in six sequences, linked by two characters who repeatedly encounter one another in the course of a day: Barbara, a young American tourist visiting Paris with a group composed primarily of middle-aged American women, and Monsieur Hulot, a befuddled Frenchman lost in the new modernity of Paris. The sequences are as follows:
- The Airport: the American tour group arrives at the ultra-modern and impersonal Orly Airport.
- The Offices: M. Hulot arrives at one of the glass and steel buildings for an important meeting, but gets lost in a maze of disguised rooms and offices, eventually stumbling into a trade exhibition of lookalike business office designs and furniture nearly identical to those in the rest of the building.
- The Trade Exhibition: M. Hulot and the American tourists are introduced to the latest modern gadgets, including a door that slams 'in golden silence' and a broom with headlights, while the Paris of legend goes all but unnoticed save for a flower-seller's stall and a single reflection of the Eiffel Tower in a glass window.
- The Apartments: as night falls, M. Hulot meets an old friend who invites him to his sparsely furnished, ultra-modern and glass-fronted flat. This sequence is filmed entirely from the street, observing Hulot and other building residents through uncurtained floor-to-ceiling picture windows.
- The Royal Garden: This sequence takes up almost the entire second half of the film. At the restaurant, Hulot reunites with several characters he has periodically encountered during the day, along with a few new ones, including a nostalgic ballad singer and a boisterous American businessman.
- The Carousel of Cars: Hulot buys Barbara two small gifts as mementos of Paris before her departure. In the midst of a complex of cars in a traffic circle, the tourists' bus returns to the airport.
Playtime is famous for its enormous, specially constructed set and background stage, known as 'Tativille', which cost enormous sums to build and maintain. The set required a hundred construction workers to construct along with its own power plant. Storms, budget crises, and other disasters stretched the shooting schedule to three years. Budget overruns forced Tati to take out large loans and personal overdrafts to cover ever-increasing production costs. As Playtime depended greatly on visual comedy and sound effects, Tati chose to shoot the film on the high-resolution 70 mm film format, together with a complicated (for its day) stereophonic soundtrack.
To save money, some of the building facades and the interior of the Orly set were actually giant photographs; and the photographs had the advantage of not reflecting the camera or lights. The Paris landmarks Barbara and the rest of the tourists see reflected in the glass windows and doors are also photographs; most famously the Eiffel Tower. Tati also used life-sized cutout photographs of people to save money on extras. These cutouts are noticeable in some of the cubicles when Hulot overlooks the maze of offices, and in the deep background in some of the shots at ground level from one office building to another.
In Playtime, Tati's character, M. Hulot, and a group of American tourists attempt to navigate a futuristic Paris constructed of straight lines, modernist glass and steel high-rise buildings, multi-lane roadways, and cold, artificial furnishings. In this environment, only the irrepressible nonconformity of human nature and an occasional appreciation for the good old days breathe life into an otherwise sterile urban lifestyle. Modern industrial technologies, accepted as necessary by society, are represented by Tati as obstructions to daily life and an interference to natural human interaction.
Tati wanted the film to be in color but look like it was filmed in black and white – an effect he had previously employed to some extent in Mon Oncle. Predominant colors are in shades of grey, blue, black, and greyish white. Green and red are used as occasional accent colors: for example, the greenish hue of patrons lit by a neon sign in a sterile and modern lunch counter, or the flashing red light on an office intercom. It has been said that Tati had one red item in every shot. Except for a single flower stall, there are no genuine green plants or trees on the set, though dull plastic plants adorn the outer balconies of some buildings, including the restaurant (the one location shot apart from the road to the airport).
Thus, when the character of Barbara arrives at the Royal Garden restaurant in an emerald-green dress seen as 'dated' by the other whispering female patrons clothed in dark attire, she visually contrasts not only with the other diners, but also with the entire physical environment of the film. As the characters in the restaurant scene begin to lose their normal social inhibitions and revel in the unraveling of their surroundings, Tati intensifies both color and lighting accordingly: late arrivals to the restaurant are less conservative, arriving in vibrant, often patterned clothing. Tati detested close-ups, considering them crude, and shot in medium-format 70 mm film so that all the actors and their physical movements would be visible, even when they were in the far background of a group scene. He used sound rather than visual cues to direct the audience's attention; with the large image size, sound could be both high and low in the image as well as left and right.
As with most Tati films, sound effects were utilized to intensify comedic effect; Leonard Maltin wrote that Tati was the "only man in movie history to get a laugh out of the hum of a neon sign!" Almost the entire film was dubbed after shooting; the editing process took nine months.
Philip Kemp has described the film's plot as exploring "how the curve comes to reassert itself over the straight line". This progression is carried out in numerous ways. At the beginning of the film, people walk in straight lines and turn on right angles. Only working-class construction workers (representing Hulot's 'old Paris', celebrated in Mon Oncle) and two music-loving teenagers move in a curvaceous and naturally human way. Some of this robotlike behavior begins to loosen in the restaurant scene near the end of the film, as the participants set aside their assigned roles and learn to enjoy themselves after a plague of opening-night disasters. Throughout the film, the American tourists are continually lined up and counted, though Barbara keeps escaping and must be frequently called back to conform with the others. By the end, she has united the curve and the line (Hulot's gift, a square scarf, is fitted to her round head); her straight bus ride back to the airport becomes lost in a seemingly endless traffic circle that has the atmosphere of a carnival ride.
The extended apartment sequence that occurs in the film, where Jacques Tati's character visits a friend and tours his apartment, is notable for a number of reasons. Jacques Tati keeps his audience outside of the apartment as we look inside the lives of these characters. In September 2012, Interiors, an online journal that is concerned with the relationship between architecture and film, released an issue that discussed how space is used in this scene. The issue highlights how Jacques Tati uses the space of the apartment to create voyeurs out of his audience.
If Playtime has a plot, it's how the film explores the fundamentals on human alienation and of the modern industrialized world of technology and order. The film's theme is also how the curve comes to reassert itself over the straight line. This progression is carried out in numerous ways. At the beginning of the film, people walk in straight lines and turn on right angles. Only working-class construction workers (representing Hulot's 'old Paris', celebrated in Mon Oncle) and two music-loving teenagers move in a curvaceous and naturally human way. Some of this robot like behavior begins to loosen in the restaurant scene near the end of the film, as the participants set aside their assigned roles and learn to enjoy themselves after a plague of opening-night disasters.
Throughout the film, the American tourists are continually lined up and counted, though Barbara keeps escaping and must be frequently called back to conform with the others. By the end, she has united the curve and the line (Hulot's gift, a square scarf, is fitted to her round head); her straight bus ride back to the airport becomes lost in a seemingly endless traffic circle that has the atmosphere of a carnival ride.
On its original French release, Playtime was acclaimed by critics. However, it was commercially unsuccessful, failing to earn back a significant portion of its production costs. One reason for the film's commercial failure may have been Tati's insistence that the film be limited to those theaters equipped with 70 mm projectors and stereophonic sound (he refused to provide a 35 mm version for smaller theaters). For another, audiences worldwide had come to love Tati's films for the character of Monsieur Hulot; and for that characters supporting role in Playtime came as a disappointment to many (Tati himself lampooned the phenomenon in an early scene in Playtime, when a rain-coated pedestrian whose back is turned to the audience is mistakenly hailed as Hulot as well as other characters in the film.)
Others disliked its nearly plotless story line, while those who only saw a single showing frequently missed the intricate, sometimes simultaneous comic sight gags performed in the various group scenes. A final reason for the film's poor reception may have been its release date; while the film's satire of modern life may have been cutting-edge when first conceptualized in 1959, by the end of 1967 such themes were now old and dated to movie audiences. Results were the same upon the film's eventual release in the U.S. in 1973 (even though it had finally been converted to a 35 mm format at the insistence of U.S. distributors and edited down to 103 minutes). Though Vincent Canby of the New York Times called Playtime, "Tati's most brilliant film", it was no more a commercial success in the U.S. than in France. Debts incurred as a result of the film's cost overruns eventually forced Tati to file for bankruptcy.
Despite its disastrous financial failure, Playtime is regarded as a great achievement by many critics. Most have noted its subtlety and complexity: it is not easily absorbed at one sitting. Film critic Roger Ebert hailed the film as a masterpiece and added it to his 'Great Movies' list saying, "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."
British critic Gilbert Adair has noted that the film has to be viewed "several times, each from a different seat in the auditorium" in order to view the many small, tightly choreographed sight gags by several different actors, sometimes displayed nearly simultaneously on the huge screen required for 70 mm film. Nor is the humor restricted to human behavior alone — a gag may revolve around an everyday object or phenomenon such as the mundane hum of a neon sign or the sound of whipped cream squirting out of a can.
I suppose it could be argued that I saw Playtime for the first time in ideal circumstances—as an American tourist in Paris. Yet to argue this would mean overlooking the film’s suggestion that, like it or not, we’re all tourists nowadays—and all Americans in some fashion as well.
It’s a brash hypothesis, arguably somewhat middle-class and rooted in the assumptions of the 1960s—but then again, a great deal of what’s known today as “the sixties” can be traced back to the vision and activity of middle-class Americans. I was certainly enough of a middle-class American tourist to find myself bemused as well as amused by this account of a day spent in a mainly studio-built Paris—and sufficiently intrigued by the seeming absence of focal points during several busy stretches to return to the movie a couple of times. This was during the summer of 1968. I’d arrived in Paris in June, at the tail end of the famous May events, the very day that the police took back the Odéon from the students. I caught the movie in 35mm, during what must have been its second or third run, a good half year after it had opened in 65mm—the format in which it was shot, which Jacques Tati suggested was the shape of the modern world—with a running time of 152 minutes. Under pressure from exhibitors, and to avoid an intermission, Tati had trimmed about fifteen minutes between the December premiere and mid-February, and with rare exceptions, most of the versions seen ever since have been about this length, in 35mm and monaural. Sadly, not all of the missing footage—most of it reportedly devoted to further variations of existing gags—has been recovered, but everything else was enhanced in a 2002 65mm restoration of the original sound and image. So we can finally see and hear the film as Tati conceived it.
When I flew back to New York, out of Orly, at the end of the summer, I was delighted to hear Playtime’s theme music employed as Muzak on my departing plane. Like the use of the same theme as the movie’s exit music, accompanying my departure from the theater each time, this implied a continuity between the movie and the world that I’ve been discovering and rediscovering ever since. In this respect, Playtime has an unexpected affinity with Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (a film that, incidentally, Tati adored and that also originally clocked in at about 155 minutes)—in its wide-screen project to reeducate us by disrupting some of our basic habits in organizing visual and spatial data. And its only counterpart in Tati’s own career would be his deceptively modest and boldly experimental last feature, Parade (1973), which carried the radical principle of equating spectators with performers even further, gently insisting that, as Tati liked to put it, “the comic effect belongs to everyone.”
A year after my first encounter with Playtime, I moved from Manhattan to Paris, and in retrospect I think I can say that the film played a significant role in my decision. It was less a matter of my Francophilia than a dawning discovery about how to live in cities that this masterpiece had helped me to formulate. And, not surprisingly, I found I could apply this lesson more readily to Paris, with its outdoor café chairs that function as orchestra seating and the theatrical lighting of its streets at night. By contrast, I felt that in response to Manhattan’s sensory overload I was starting to feel detached from and deadened to the world around me whenever I left my one-room apartment. Playtime proposed a particularly euphoric form of reengagement with public space, suggesting ways of looking and finding connections, comic and otherwise, between supposedly disconnected street details—not to mention connections between those details and myself.
A few years after my move, I landed an interview with Tati in his suburban office, in La Garenne-Colombes, and began our conversation by telling him how Playtime had changed my relation to cities. (Around me, in his small office, I could see a few enduring elements from the film—most notably, one of the antiseptic black chairs, which, unlike its movie equivalents, didn’t go whoosh when I sat in it.) I’m sure that my declaration, along with my subsequent friendship with Marie-France Siegler, Tati’s main assistant—who can be seen seated on the bus next to the young tourist, Barbara, in Playtime’s final sequence—must have played some role in my getting hired as his “script consultant” a couple of months later.
It was a weekday job that basically consisted of being his audience for a never-filmed film project called Confusion—ultimately lasting, if memory serves, less than a couple of weeks, until Tati became ill. He had recently been bankrupted by the heavy losses of Playtime, so it was generous of him to be paying me any salary at all. This was during the period when Playtime was first showing in the United States, in various cuts over which he had no control, and there were times during our sessions together, often in the late afternoon, when he sank into gloom. I remember one such time when he sought to cheer himself up by looking through his scrapbooks devoted to the Playtime sets. He also once imagined killing off his famous persona, Monsieur Hulot, in the opening moments of Confusion, a gesture that for him would have been liberating. The character was his meal ticket—which is why Tati reluctantly made him more prominent again in Trafic (1971), after deliberately minimizing and even downgrading him in Playtime with a profusion of ersatz Hulots—but he interfered with Tati’s democratic notion of comedy, which did away with stars. In Playtime, he liked to say, the only real star was his set—and maybe that was expensive, “but not any more than Sophia Loren.”
Playtime is a movie that unfolds entirely in a public space defined by that set. Even the strange sequence showing us adjacent living rooms—which wasn’t part of any of the versions I saw until Tati reedited a final version that satisfied him, shortly before his death, in 1982—is shot exclusively from the street; and the only time we see Barbara in her hotel room is when a maid delivers her evening dress. So there’s something inappropriate and contrary to Tati’s design for the film about its being viewed in private spaces, especially on any screen smaller than oneself. Playtime assumes a precise contiguity and continuity with the public space of a theater, where we share its experience with others—just as the customers and employees of the Royal Garden eventually manage to carve out a common social investment in an establishment that’s gradually disintegrating around them. Even if we sometimes wind up laughing at different gags, we’re all laughing to some degree at ourselves, and the sense of mutual recognition is crucial.
Mobile phones have sadly made the sense of public urban space as it exists in Playtime almost archaic, a kind of lost paradise. The utopian vision of shared space that informs the latter scenes—beginning in the new Royal Garden restaurant at night and continuing the next morning in a drugstore and on the streets of Paris—is made unthinkable by mobile phones, whose use can be said to constitute both a depletion and a form of denial of public space, especially because the people using them tend to ignore the other people in immediate physical proximity to them. Nevertheless, given his capacity to keep abreast of social changes, I have little doubt that Tati, if he were alive today, could and probably would construct wonderful gags involving the use of these phones. And if he were making Playtime now, I suspect he’d most likely be inventing gags for the first part that involved mobile phones, and then would have to find ways of destroying or disempowering them to make way for the second part. (It’s hardly accidental that his most brilliantly and elaborately developed gag involves the shattering of glass, another social barrier.)
The Royal Garden sequence, making up roughly half of the film, may be the most formidable example of mise-en-scène in the history of cinema. It is certainly the most Brueghel-like in its expansion of the principle—found in such populated landscape paintings as Landscape with the Fall of Icarus and The Procession to Cavalry—that life and history unfold in a plethora of small, almost indiscernible details.
The crucial catalyst for our appreciation of this sequence is the music, played by two successive bands and then sung by an old-fashioned chanteuse, who’s eventually joined by the customers—an element that helps us to cope creatively with Tati’s overload of invention by furnishing a rhythmic base to work from. Thanks to this music, each set of visual options has a rhythmic pattern for one’s gaze to follow while scanning the screen’s busy surface of swarming detail, through which we can join Tati in charting our own choreographies, improvising our own organizations of emphasis and direction in relation to the director’s massive “head arrangement.” What other movie converts work into play so pleasurably by turning the very acts of seeing and hearing into a form of dancing?
Playtime is such a magical film that with each new viewing I always find something new that I admire or adore. Hulot's very first entrance is very easy to miss. Seeing this now for the third time is when I finally caught Hulot's first appearance in the film. He walks in the frame of the background while babbling tourists in the foreground originally distracted my view of him. In a brilliant use of sound, Tati has Hulot drop his umbrella and the sound of his umbrella was what got me to direct my eye to Hulot. Playtime was said to be critic Jonathan Rosenbaum's favorite film: "It directs us to look around at the world we live in (the one we keep building), then at each other, and to see how funny that relationship is and how many brilliant possibilities we still have in a shopping-mall world that perpetually suggests otherwise; to look and see that there are many possibilities and that the play between them, activated by the dance of our gaze, can become a kind of comic ballet, one that we both observe and perform..."
Playtime is a comedy but it's not the usual comedy where it pulls cheap zingers and laugh out loud gags to get the audience to laugh. It's the subtle little moments that make Playtime so unique and funny; where at times you will see something that will make you smile; and others that will make you chuckle. As with most Tati films, sound effects were utilized to intensify comedic effect. Leonard Maltin wrote "Tati was the only man in movie history to get a laugh out of the hum of a neon sign!" In many ways Playtime is similar to the great silent comedies of Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, and most obviously Charles Chaplin's Modern Times where Tati also uses similar themes on the rise of modern technology in a now more industrialized world. Tati loved the use of gadgets and machines which are supposedly made to make life smoother and more efficient and instead makes things hopelessly complicated for several of the characters.
There's a funny scene of a sympathetic old porter who is trying to work the buttons of an intercom properly and also trying to understand the muffled sound of the voice coming from the other end. Also like Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times Playtime creatively uses sounds for great comedic effect. For instance the sound of whip cream squirting out of a bottle, the sounds of shoes and flip-flops or the sound of swinging doors as waiters come in and out. The several sounds of beeps and buttons of machinery and the muffled voices of people through a intercom. There's even a funny scene in a glass waiting room, where Hulot becomes distracted by the loud whooshing sounds the chair cushions make. Even the sound of a brand new neon light that gets turned on for the grand opening of a new restaurant always makes me chuckle.
The use of sound that Tati brings to the films is extraordinary because it has us enter a marvelous world of plate-glass and steel, endless corridors, escalators, work stations, elevators, and dead quite waiting rooms where all you hear is a persons cough, the sound of a zipper or the buzzing sound of the air conditioning motor. Some of the shots even shift from the point of view outside onto the street looking inward where you hear the sound of traffic and pedestrians walking by.
Tati's famous clumsy and well-meaning character Monsieur Hulot which he had casted as the star in several earlier comedies, always sticks out as a tall awkward man wearing a hat and raincoat and always having a long-stemmed pipe in his mouth. His character became very popular in Tati's other masterpiece Mr. Hulot's Holiday, which tells the story of Hulot, who decides to take a summer vacation at a seaside resort. That film won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 1958 and is hailed next to Playtime as his best work. Tati then directed another funny film using the character of Monsieur Hulot called Mon Oncle in 1958; which was Tati's first film in color. Like the similar themes used in Playtime, Mon Oncle dealt with the ideas of the rise of technology and mechanical efficiency. Hulot visits his adoring nephew's parent's home in the suburbs of Paris; and the home is a ultra-modern geometric house which leads to several amusing moments.
But it was nearly 10 years until Tati had finally found the financing for Playtime and decided to use Hulot once again; but not as a main character but more of a supporting prop for the universe he constructed. There are a lot of several funny moments in Playtime but there are at least three masterful scenes that work not only as comedy but as style and technique as well. The first one is a scene where Hulot has a business meeting with a certain gentlemen and when sitting down waiting for him to arrive the camera is aimed directly outward towards a long narrow hallway; with Hulot not in view of it. You then hear the gentlemen walking down towards Hulot but the sound of his shoes that are echoing off the walls makes Hulot believe he is much more closer then he is; which Hulot about to get up several times to greet him but is told he hasn't yet arrived.
The second moment is a voyeuristic camera shot from outside viewing in several apartment buildings which all have walls of plate-glass windows, and the residents are in full view of the street. There is an amazing shot showing four apartments at once, and in very unique visual trick Tati makes it appear that a neighbor in a different apartment is watching Hulot's army buddy undress when she is actually watching the TV. The third classic moment involves the confusion of glass windows. Near the end of the film Hulot accidentally shatters the main glass door of a restaurant and the enterprising doorman simply holds the large brass handle in midair and opens and closes an invisible door, and at the same time still collects his tips. Come to think about it, glass windows and doors seem to confuse a lot of the characters in the film. In a very subtle scene a man approaches a building guard to get a light for his cigarette and doesn't even realize there is a glass wall that is separating the two of them.
Playtime is a visual marvel and to see it only once does not do it justice; because there's so much going on in every shot. Tati uses the shots in the film also as a way to slowly unravel the setting we as an audience find ourselves in. I noticed an amazing way Tati revealed the beginning shot of the film. We begin by seeing a sterile concourse in a modern building. In the foreground, you overhear a wife reassuring her husband concerns on how she has packed everything important that he needs. At first you think you are in some kind of waiting room of a hospital of some sort, especially when noticing a man in a white coat and a woman who is pushing a wheelchair. Suddenly nuns walk into frame and little by little new details reveal the true environment we find ourselves placed in. Only slowly do these images reveal to us that were in fact not in a hospital at all but actually are at an airline terminal.
The character of Hulot probably has the most coherent plot within the structure of the film as you see him struggle to meet up with a gentlemen for a business meeting, in which he eventually finds himself chasing after him throughout several floors of the building. There is an interesting shot of him using the elevator and having us watch the light of the elevator from outside onto the street as it moves up and down multiple times in the building. He then finds himself lost in a maze of offices and boardroom meetings and happens to fall into certain situations by chance; which in one situation is put on display in a trade exbidition. There are also several characters you see more than once float throughout the film. There's a woman named Barbara who is an American tourist visiting Paris with several other elderly women. There's the long-suffering restaurant owner, the elderly porter, several tourists, a drunk (who seems to be fascinated by the neon light of the restaurant), the restaurant doorman; and also several army friends from Hulot's past.
The last sequence of the film is also its longest which involves the grand opening night of a new restaurant in which everything seems to go wrong for the owner and all the employees. Right when the band arrives there is a sequence of funny gags which include several spills, accidents and mix ups with the waiters. There is one unfortunate waiter who after tearing his jacket eventually removes all the layers of his wardrobe because of several mishaps; which in the end leaves him looking much worse than when he originally started. And the shattering of the front door which I described earlier is the beginning of the collapse of the whole restaurant foundation, which eventually leads to the roof structure collapsing in, multiple electrical short outs and even potential fires. And yet the more disasters that seem to occur, the more the customers start relaxing, letting loose and having a better time. The last sequence of the film shows daylight as Hulot and Barbara meet each other for the first time. He then nicely purchases two small farewell gifts for Barbara before catching her bus back to the airport. The classic last shot of the film shows a ballet of cars jammed in a traffic circle that feels more like a carousel ride as the elderly American tourists "ooh" and "aah" the scenery of the city. This film itself feels like a tourist guide for the audience and as a viewer you feel you went along with these American tourists to explore this interesting new world that Tati has gratefully shown us. Critic Jonathan Rosenbaum did an interview with Jacques Tati in 1987, and the director told him how he once imagined killing off the character of Monsieur Hulot which would have been very liberating for him. But he decided against it because that character was his meal ticket which is why he brought the character back in Trafic in 1971. Tati was very ill at the time of the interview and he started getting depressed when discussing the heavy losses on Playtime which caused him to go into bankruptcy; as the two of them were looking in scrapbooks devoted to the Playtime sets. In Playtime, Tati said that the only real star was his set and "maybe that was expensive, but not anymore than Sophia Loren."