The great French comedy director Jacques Tati starred in four of his own films, playing one of cinema’s most beloved comic figures, Monsieur Hulot. Hulot has a charming, Chaplin-esque presence, but the wonder of Tati’s films come from the extravagant activity that plays out in the world around him. You might consider Hulot an ancestor to Rowan Atkinson’s Mr. Bean, and plenty of directors have shown Tati’s influence on their work. (The city may remind you of Metropolis or the chaotic cityscape of Brazil. Tom Hanks has something of Hulot’s demeanor in Steven Spielberg’s fish-out-of-water comedy The Terminal.) But Hulot isn’t exactly a clown; often, he’s merely an awkward observer stumbling through a world fraught with hilarious, barely controlled chaos.
In Playtime, the subject is not Hulot, but the developing civilization around him. Paris is growing and changing at such a frantic rate that many of the film’s absurd and elaborate sets seem to be in a constant state of simultaneous construction and deconstruction. (You may not even recognize that it’s Paris until you catch a fleeting reflection of the Eiffel Tower in an opening door.) What we hear is almost as overwhelming and encompassing as what we see. If you’re lucky enough to see this in a theater, don’t miss it. Otherwise, settle for nothing less than Criterion’s DVD presentation. You’ll want to see this on the largest screen you can find, with the best surround-sound you can set up.
The film, a failure at the box office, was a project of extraordinary ambition with a huge price tag, and it shows. The Paris of Playtime is a prophetic vision of this present high-speed society, in which architecture sacrifices style for practicality, and the trends of the fashionable are often downright ridiculous. Tati’s physical comedy is relentlessly clever, sometimes playing out in several situations at once. (Watch the glass-front apartment complex as a man watching TV in his living room seems to be responding to the woman undressing in the next apartment. In another confounding sequence, a restaurant’s glass door shatters, and the doorman picks up the door handle so he can pretends to continue to dong his job, while the arriving diners fail to notice.
Playtime may frustrate viewers who demand a compelling plot, and it takes some getting used to as its panoramic spectacle keeps us at a distance from the action. Remember, this was meant to be seen on a Cinerama screen. And some may find it a tedious expression of cynicism about contemporary trends. (Where is the natural world? Has humanity wiped it out?) But the more you pay attention to Tati’s intricate details, the more you’ll find that this film delivers exactly what its title promises. Even as it reminds us to have a sense of humor about ourselves, Playtime is full of affection for the relentless circus of human creativity.