Playtime (1967)

Review first published by Movie Gazette

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, 1953 and Mon Oncle, 1958), 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 singular 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 Coeœur 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 droll 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 pompous 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 periphery-stretching 70mm, 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, before descending 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.

Anton Bitel