In the second edition of CANON OF FILM, we take a look a Jacques Tati‘s ‘Playtime’. For the genesis of CANON OF FILM, you can click here.
Director: Jacques Tati
Screenplay: Jacques Lagrange and Jacques Tati; with addition English dialogue by Art Buchwald
Jacques Tati’s ‘Playtime‘ is clearly a masterpiece, but I think almost nobody can actually master it. According to film scholar Noel Berch, ‘Playtime‘, doesn’t have to just be seen multiple times, but has to be seen from several different points in the theater itself. The movie is all action. Not the way we normally think of action, but “action” in terms of filling up the screen. To watch one thing – usually in the foreground – means you’re missing many things happening in the background, and vice-versa.
The most expensive French film made at the time, the film’s box office failure would eventually bankrupt Tati. He’s known as much as a performer as he is a director. His comedy is sly, that seems inspired by classic slapstick, but is actually more intrigued by sound effects and quiet observation. He’s often regarded as the Charlie Chaplin of France, yet he came around much later. His most famous character is Monsieur Hulot, an exaggerated character that is on par or equal to such silent staples as Chaplin’s Tramp or Fatty Arbuckle’s Strong Man. More recently, you can see his character as a predecessor to Rowan Atkinson’s “Mr. Bean” character. Tati’s movies have sound, and often dialogue, but they basically act more like silents with sound effects.
I saw the Hulot films out of order originally, this was the second one I saw after ‘M. Hulot’s Holiday‘, his first directing project. Maybe the best Hulot film is ‘Mon Oncle‘, which earned him an Oscar for Foreign Language Film. It’s easy to disregard him, because his films rarely, if ever, produce the physical laughs one would’ve expected. I personally didn’t care much for “M. Hulot’s Holiday” at all, which is generally considered a classic, but he doesn’t go for big laughs. He goes for the small chuckles that make up the human experience and not say, the over-embellishment of such moments as say, The Tramp getting sucked into the machine in Chaplin’s great film ‘Modern Times‘, a film that’s one of the few that ‘Playtime‘ could possibly be compared to. It’s anti-technology stance is a common thread in Hulot’s work, reminiscent of the great French comedy ‘A Nous la Liberte‘, but it’s also anti-establishment in tone.
Much of the movie is a long restaurant sequence where everything goes wrong and the worse, the better, reminiscent of one of Luis Bunuel‘s notorious dinners, or dinner attempts in “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie”. If ‘Playtime‘ wasn’t shot on the largest stage ever built, it was probably damn close to it. It takes place in a modern Paris made of blue steel and glass. So much glass, during one famous scene, a guy asks for a cigarette light not realizing the guy he was talking to is on the other side of a large glass building. In another scene, at the restaurant, a glass door is broken by M. Hulot (Tati, most of the time.) and a doorman improvises by holding the door handle to an invisible door and continues opening and closing it as though it was there. There are tours to see pictures of the famous building in reflections of the other buildings like the Eiffel Tower, but nobody can ever find where exactly the reflections are from anymore.
M. Hulot is probably the closest we get to a main character. Although unlike his other Hulot films with his oversized pipe and coat and undersized pants, argyle socks and hunched walk, he is basically used as a somewhat recognizable figure to keep track of and observe, and even he isn’t entirely reliable, occasionally running into Hulot lookalikes. If I were to compare his character in ‘Playtime’ to any other literary character, he seems to serve the same service as Waldo from the “Where’s Waldo,” books. He’s there, you’re looking for him, but there’s more action if you look around closely. There’s no plot, there’s too many characters to make note of any of them, but there’s seemingly endless odd little thoughts bouncing around the screen, some more in focus than others, some funnier than others, others are just throwaway vignettes. Tati almost seems to be playing around, giving us a visual representation of how his mind might work. ‘Playtime‘ may have bankrupted him, but the film is one of those rare movies that has to be watched and placed in it’s own category out the regular notions of genre. It’s rare to make a seminal movie such as “2001…” or ‘Citizen Kane‘ or ‘Groundhog Day’. ‘Playtime‘ isn’t just seminal, it’s a work that hasn’t even been repeated, or replicated in any way, probably never will. Thank goodness, ’cause we’ll be mulling over this one for years anyway.