Directed by Jacques Tati
Starring: Jacques Tati, Barbara Dennek, Yves Barsacq, Georges Montant
Grade: A -
Written for Subtitled Online:
Many creators have suffered for their art, but few go as far as bankruptcy to succeed. After Jacques Tati made his third feature film, Mon Oncle, in 1958, it took him nine years to wrap shooting on his next project Playtime, having had to generate funding (some of which was personal), and construct an entire metropolitan setting from scratch. Although Playtime is often very physically compact, it might be said that this is the “epic” in Tati’s filmography, if only for the sheer scale of his efforts in creating an artificial ecology of thought, and for the assured methodology behind this fascinating world.
Tati recycles his old faithful hero Mr. Hulot, and again elects to play the role, wandering around a nameless city and becoming distracted by its populous of tourists, salesmen, and partygoers. The true intention of his visit to the place, however, is not as leisurely as it was in something like Mr. Hulot’s Holiday, as he arrives at an office tower for an appointment with his business partner, Mr. Giffard. What follows is a comedy of errors, whereby Hulot chases after his partner but – through increasingly bizarre circumstances – is unable to catch up with him. One such moment occurs when a patiently-waiting Hulot moves across the room to study some artwork, only to discover that he has entered an elevator and is promptly taken to the top floor of the building.
When Hulot boards a bus full of American tourists by mistake, he is transported to the lavish nightspots of the city. The rectilinear style of this metropolis, with its simple, clean lines and arresting symmetry, is said to be in France, but feels more like developed American conurbations in its polished extravagance. Tati uses the setting to demonstrate the commercialisation of existence, in terms of how we view ‘home’, and what we want from the places that we visit. Ageing women visit a trade fair and seem genuinely enthralled when a man tries to sell them a vacuum cleaner; brash Americans throw their money around at travel agencies, and are rude at restaurants. Do we want to be catered to, marketed to, sold commodities to invest in, and if so, is life just a commodity?
Playtime recalls the post-war emergence of consumerism, and how that is fuelled by places like this city, which provide people with a way of surviving through capitalist self-sufficiency. A family’s apartment overlooks a packed street like a high-street store window, and the surrounding blocks have identical layouts. The venues in the city, whether business or socially-oriented, are aesthetically slick but essentially cold, hollow places to be. They have no mark of personalisation, but its inhabitants seem perfectly content to live there.
The lounge bar which Hulot visits literally falls to pieces at the slightest contact, and the showroom feel of the bar suggests that it is meant to be viewed and not touched: its physical properties are irrelevant. After Hulot has dismantled a certain section of the bar, a frustrated woman leaves, claiming, “Every night – it’s always the same”. A figurative remark, this feels like more of a jibe against pristine living spaces and regulated commerce, almost as if these inhabitants are like The Sims (simulations) in the computer game of the same name. They appear to exist as part of this place, as a product of it, than through their own individual needs.
Despite causing things to go slightly off-kilter, Hulot doesn’t garner any blame from the people that he encounters, and can’t affect the systematic nature of this world at all. He seems particularly aloof and enveloped in this picture than in other outings, as Tati spends fifteen minutes navigating a restaurant before he shows Hulot arriving. A touching late bond with a female tourist offers recompense, and it might be that the authorial nature of Tati as Hulot connects with the woman, who asks him how the word “drugstore” is said in French, despite all the signs being in English. Is her cultural awareness an appealing gesture? Either way, it’s a warmer way to end the film than one would certainly expect.
The final scene, too, offers lighter ideas of this place as a visitor attraction by transforming menial elements of city life into a veritable cavalcade of funfair rides. The previously drone shade of cars flourish into a multicoloured brethren of vehicles that mount a roundabout and revolve at the same speed like a makeshift carousel. Elsewhere, an ice cream truck halts to open service, and motorised lifts move up and down like mini-theme park rides. Purely and simply, this is “play time”, making light of the heavy formality of city life, in as orchestrated a manner as we’ve seen in ambitious advertisements: “come here and spend”.
If only for the sheer magnitude of what Tati has built and voiced, “Playtime” is a curious beast to behold. Add to that the unique, interesting ways in which he manages to collate different representations of capitalism; the meticulous, almost real-time approach to telling his story; the rasping social context that he keenly offers, and this is an essential artefact of world cinema. It’s somewhat comforting to see somebody go all-out and succeed, and although "Playtime" financially flopped, there’s little doubt that it ranks as a gutsy, artistic triumph.
Playtime is now available on DVD/Blu Ray Dual-Format edition.