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Genre: Comedy (France, Italy)
Starring: Jacques Tati (Jour de fête • Trafic)
Directed By: Jacques Tati (Mon Oncle • Les vacances de Monsieur Hulot)
Overview: Mr. Hulot arrives in Paris for a meeting, but his confusing surroundings inspire strange antics, from him and the tourists around him.
Playtime is billed as a Comedy, and indeed it is that more than anything else, but don’t go into Playtime expecting a rollicking gutter-laugh old time. Playtime is less about laughs than it is about wit – witty soundplay, witty visuals, witty wackiness happening in the background of a witty foreground. Most easily comparable to Rowan Atkinsons’s silent sketch comedy “Mr. Bean” series or Peter Sellers in The Party (1968), Jacques Tati’s Playtime is one of the wittiest and most unique films this withered old blog critic has seen in a long time.
If there is one character we follow more than any other, it is Mr. Hulot, a character who recurs in several other Jacques Tati films; here, as always, played by Tati himself. The plot is paper thin: our character is meeting someone and having trouble finding him. By having virtually no story, the film allows us to focus instead on the now, on the quirky-neat moments in time being presented. We almost silently follow Hulot’s confused search around an office building, or his aimless wanderings when he’s given up. Primary as he may be, Mr. Hulot takes up very little of the space of this film, making him just one of the crowd, seen occasionally as we watch whomever may pass by first. Having a main character we don’t see for long stretches is one of the main reasons Playtime is so original.
We open in a world of glass and chrome with highlights of silver, black and drab. Everything is cold, Cubist, mechanical - the office spaces are open-topped rows of independent cubes, the three lane roundabout shows cars circling endlessly, the airport looks identical to the buildings that tourists are visiting. Travel posters for Hawaii, Stockholm, London and other cities prominently feature the same oppressive gray high-rise, highlighting it as the reason to go on vacation. Rather than seeing the Eiffel Tower and The Arch de Triomphe, we see those places reflected in glass doors as tourists are led into office buildings and trade shows by their guides. But these images aren’t depressing; they’re comic – nay, witty, telling of the absurdity of this automated society. Then, once those post-modern points have been made, those same images become preludes to gags. For example, the third reflection we see in a Parisian door is the Taj Mahal. A scene where neon letters are being tested by electricians; a priest stops and stands to fix his cuffs, the neon ‘O’ behind him illuminates, giving him a halo. More than anything, Playtime is endlessly filled with sight and sound gags, many taking three seconds, many repeating themselves several times throughout the film.
The second half of Playtime is much looser, the colour palette is brighter, it’s more laugh-out-loud, but the camera play, sound play and sparks of wit never let up. The lion’s share of Playtime takes place in a restaurant that is having its grand opening, though the construction is not quite complete. The architect and builders are still hard at work as the restaurant fills itself beyond capacity. Things begin to fall into drunken chaos from customers to staff, and from construction to electrical. It’s a wonderful 45-minute scene that focusses on the moment, without any plot constraints aside from people-watching. It’s an incredible sight to behold.
Unfortunately, I believe that Playtime will fundamentally appeal to more experienced filmgoers, fans of the silent era and those inclined to foreign film, because it’s so completely different from mainstream cinema. It may be too quiet, too thin of plot to the seekers of the standard three-act story, but daring souls will be well rewarded. Playtime is almost abstract in its absurdity, but never strange. Everything is accessible, but, as I’ve said already, it shows a director’s wit by manipulating his audience through technical aspects of camera and sound work, rather than by causing its viewers to roll on the floor laughing. You’ll lean in closer to see if you’ve missed anything, and perhaps even take a mental note to plan another viewing for the things that you knew flew past your perceptions.
Performance: 8 Cinematography: 9 Script: 7 Plot: 8 Mood: 9
Overall Rating: 82% (Re-Play Time)
A more apt title, given the images might have been Greytime, though it is far more playful than grey. I expect that Jacques Tati’s other Mr. Hulot films, especially Les vacances de Monsieur Hulot and Mon Oncle is done in this same quiet and absurd manner. I'm looking forward to them quite a bit.