Format: DVD from NetFlix on rockin’ flatscreen.
There are times when I feel like the last defender of the work of Jacques Tati. While today’s film, Playtime (sometimes written as two words or as one word with a capitalized “t”), is rightly appreciated by film fans, I sometimes get the sense that among 1001 Movies bloggers, Tati has few fans. More than once, I’ve read or heard that comment that three Tati films on The List is at least one too many. I can’t disagree more. I find Tati’s work sweet and endearing, silly, poignant, bizarre, and often infused with subtle humor.
Playtime is very much a Jacques Tati film, the sort of thing that only he could get away with making. From a lesser or different filmmaker, we would never put up with an extended sequence where we essentially stand outside an apartment building and hear almost no dialogue. With Tati, it all works.
Anyway, like most Tati, there isn’t really a plot here, but a series of interconnected scenarios. This is less about a particular story than it is about a particular theme. Everything that happens in this film ties back to the concept of a modern man (Tati’s signature Hulot character) adrift in a world of modern technology. This technology has removed humans from the natural world, stripping the inhabitants of the film of their connection to each other and everything else.
Hulot (Tati himself) appears in this film far less than he does in the other Tati films I’ve seen. He’s a central character here only by default; he simply appears in the film more than anyone else, although there are long stretches of film in which Hulot is not present at all. All of the sequences of the film focus around the idea of man’s place in the modern world. We get sequences outside a modern apartment building in which people are on display to the outside world. We wander around a modern office building in which every room and corridor looks exactly like every other, and the cubicle farm appears to go on eternally. We see a collection of modern conveniences that are inconvenient and ridiculous.
I’m reminded of a number of other films in watching this one, many newer than this one. I can’t think for a second that Terry Gilliam wasn’t hugely influenced by Playtime when he made 12 Monkeys, for example. The ridiculous technology on display here (like a broom with electric headlights) is mirrored in Gilliam’s film. More importantly, it’s the attitude that is replicated there, this conflict between a natural world and the way things should be done with a series of ridiculous and sometimes dangerous “convenient” devices. I see traces of Alphaville here, as well as Tati’s earlier films, of course.
The thing about Tati is that his films are classified as comedies almost by default, because they aren’t really anything else. I rarely laugh out loud at a Tati film, because they aren’t that kind of funny. They are, more or less, silent films with sound, and Playtime is no different in this respect. Often, the dialogue is muted or talked over or difficult to hear, and is almost never relevant to anything else. In a lot of ways, Tati’s constant use of sight gags is very reminiscent of Keaton or Harold Lloyd.
Ultimately, I get why a lot of people don’t like Jacques Tati and why they would find a film like Playtime frustrating. There is no plot here, no real story. There’s just stuff that happens, sometimes over and over. There are long sequences where very little happens, and that which does isn’t especially funny for minutes at a time. Playtime is all about the slow build. The epic restaurant sequence starts slow, with not much happening. By the end, people are falling off barstools, the ceiling is caving in, the band has quit, and the same plate of fish has been seasoned multiple times. The same is true of the closing sequence of the film in which a group of American tourists attempt to return to the airport and get caught in an endless traffic turnabout, a sort of motorized comic ballet.
So what are we to get from Playtime? That the modern world isn’t worth the trouble? That each advance in technology strips us of our humanity and isn’t really an advance? I think both of those are possible. There’s a reason that through the entire film, which is set in Paris, we see only blocky buildings and angular structures. Those familiar Paris landmarks that we expect to see to place us simply aren’t here, save a quick glimpse of the Eiffel Tower. And that’s intentional, too. The modern world has standardized everything, Tati seems to be saying, and we may as well be anywhere instead of one of the most spectacular cities in the world. Even the color palette of greys, blues, blacks, whites, and tans seems to be saying that the world has lost its color.
I get it, and I tend to get Jacques Tati. I wish I liked this one as much as I do his other films, but I don’t quite.
Why to watch Playtime: Jacques Tati made only six films, so those he made should be treasured.
Why not to watch: For being his consensus masterpiece, it's a bit underwhelming.