The Paris of Jacques Tati’s PlayTime first seems like an imposing concourse of tall, grey buildings, studded with windows and jutting out into the space like visual interruptions, connected by grey roads leading to more tall, grey buildings. The enormous set Tati and his team designed mimics and mocks the homogeneity of modern architecture as the filmmaker saw it. But it becomes — through the director’s scheme of packing his spaces with visual and aural jokes, misdirecting details and distracting incongruities — an enormous post-industrial playground for the characters who wander through it.
PlayTime opens in a large — you guessed it — grey building, in a spacious corridor, with floors so clinically clean they’re almost mirrors. A woman is talking to a man about keeping warm, as he wraps a scarf around his neck. They’re sitting in some sort of waiting area, as cleaners and passersby of various descriptions move on nearby, it seems like they’re in a hospital. They are not. (The film’s first incongruous detail: a pair of nuns walk by a window, the sides of their habits flapping like birds’ wings; the second: figures in the background are standing absolutely still, until they move into a new repose, like subjects in a Surrealist painting.)
A voice announces departure timings over a Tannoy, and — in the background — the tail of an airplane is visible. The setting is Orly airport. Here’s only a fraction of the teeming detail it’s possible to notice: A visiting dignitary is walking through the arrival gate, the tag on his hand-luggage spinning as if being blown by a forceful wind; a group of American women on holiday are guided through the building to their buses; the man and the woman seen talking at the start of the scene, as if the man was going in for a medical check-up, are actually about to go separate ways; in the extreme background of one shot, the two nuns with flapping habits continue making their way around; and throughout this busy introductory sequence, there have been a number of lookalikes of Monsieur Hulot — the character played by Tati in his greatest films, Les vacances de Monsieur Hulot, Mon Oncle, Trafic, and this, by my estimate, his most wonderful piece of work — who has not yet turned up himself.
Hulot arrives around 10 minutes into the PlayTime: he’s getting off a bus and finding his way into one of the tall, grey, glassy structures of the city. He’s set for a meeting with a man in the building, one Mr. Giffard (Georges Montant), but is delayed by a doorman who can’t work the ultra-modern controls to relay the information, and then by an American businessman whose own meeting with Giffard apparently takes precedence. No one is explaining anything to Hulot, who is clearly flummoxed but too polite to complain. When trying to catch up with Giffard and make sure his meeting isn’t forgotten about, Hulot loses him in the maze of the office-complex after accidentally walking into an elevator. Hulot manages to get back to the right floor, and the camera, in a high-angled long-shot, captures the frustrating almost reconciliations of the pair, snaking their respective ways through rows of office cubicles. At the end of a row, Hulot thinks he’s spotted him in the building next door, currently housing a home appliances trade exposition, and exits — failing to notice that this was Giffard’s reflection he could see, and the man was really standing fewer than 10 feet away from him in the same building.
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Tati’s attitude towards the modern city, as expressed through Hulot’s being easily confused by and his aptness to get lost in the structures of modernity, runs the risk of being called reactionary, of longing for what’s no more, of being against a notion of progress. There’s more than a resemblance to Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons, with its negations of the speed of change: “the faster we’re carried,” the narrator (Welles) posits, “the less time we have to spare.” In a way, the comedy of PlayTime mirrors the overwhelming flux of sensations and information and people the city contains, by packing each shot full of complete, incomplete and potential gags: exactly as Hulot gets lost in the busyness of city business, so the viewer gets lost in the hyperactive simultaneity that is the mark of Tati’s humour.
But Tati’s critique of modernity is more balanced than it might at first seem. In Mon Oncle, the ridiculous faux-modernist house is viewed as an affectation, and often framed as a prison for its youngest inhabitant, Hulot’s nephew, Gérard. The clue to Tati’s view is in the owners’ possessions: the house is filled with the kind of gimmicky gadgetry Hulot finds in PlayTime’s trade expo (which end up being Hulot’s stock-in-trade in the ultra-utilitied camper-van in Trafic), so it seems as though it’s what people do with the spaces in which they live, rather than the intrinsic fact or form of them, that are the target of Tati’s mockery. There’s another example slightly later in the film. Hulot, after being, due to his unfailing but hampering politesse, trapped in the trade expo all afternoon, hops on a bus, still not having found Giffard. As he exits into the night, an old army buddy, Schneller (Yves Barsacq), greets him warmly and invites him into his apartment for a drink. Hulot is obviously reluctant, but accepts. The camera stays on the other side of the glass, looking in through the streetside window at the pleasant furnishings, watching Hulot watch TV while making small talk with Schneller, his wife and his daughter. The camera tracks to the right. Giffard, who has been looking for Hulot himself for some time, enters the apartment next door, which he owns. The camera remains on the pavement as Giffard and his family and those gathered in the adjoining apartment all watch their respective TV sets, which happen to be positioned in the same wall: from the outside, it looks as though everyone in the shot must be staring directly at each other. There’s one paradox of the city: being so close together and yet not close enough to notice.
I’ve disparaged Hulot’s politeness on more than one occasion now, but Tati’s performance of Hulot’s manners and movements, and the resulting misapprehensions these cause, is one of PlayTime’s chief pleasures. But only one of them: Tati is happy for Hulot to cede the floor to other characters, and they become essential to the gags layed-out in the film, such as in Hulot’s absence from the opening 10 minutes, the scene in the expo — while Hulot is lost, attention shifts to one of the American tourists observed in the airport earlier, Barbara (Barbara Dennek) — and a later scene in a packed restaurant. Hulot’s walk, a determined if oblivious combination of bounce and shuffle, coupled with his hat, long overcoat and trusty umbrella either wrapped around his left wrist or held in his right hand, identifies him immediately. If lost — which is often — he begins to glide, often pirouetting gracefully with the help of his extended umbrella while he situates himself. And when Hulot engages someone, he takes a sharp step before them, nodding toward them generously, before offering either his help or simply his attention. Hulot’s manners, or, more precisely, the near unctuous extent to which he observes them, are ridiculous. Even in a film of a smaller scale, like Les vacances, Hulot’s devotion to being polite impedes his ability to live comfortably. On first entrance into the Hôtel de la Plage, and every room he enters subsequently, Hulot takes time to nod or gesture toward as many people as possible, eagerly stooping in acknowledgement. Even in a small seaside hotel, this is a bit of an undertaking. In a large city, thronging with people, it’s impossible to maintain these standards: if Hulot started holding a door open for a stranger, he would never stop. And yet he tries, because Hulot’s instinct is to share, to extend goodwill and good fellowship to other characters, despite how difficult this benignness proves to be. Which is what Tati does for the viewer.
After Hulot finally meets Giffard, by happy accident, on the street, they go their ways into the evening, and Hulot is accosted by another friend, a doorman for the Royal Garden, a restaurant and club marking its hastily arranged opening night that evening. The lit-up welcome sign isn’t working; the fittings are set to burst; the kitchen and staff are in disarray: and all this before diners have entered. When they do, it becomes unsustainable. A jazz band plays and attracts a full, pullulating dance floor, further impeding service. The American tourists, Barbara among them, turn up for dinner in a large group. When Hulot arrives, he makes two changes — both accidental — which alter the mood of the evening for the better: firstly, he breaks the front glass door in a misunderstanding with his pal, the doorman, thus destroying the already collapsing distinction between the Royal Garden and the outside world, which invites anyone and everyone in; secondly, at the behest of an exuberant, attention-seeking American businessman, Hulot offers to pull one of the decorative plastic fruits from the ceiling, causing part of the roof to cave in. The American man improvises, fashioning a make-shift, exclusive night-club out of the hanging beams and appendages. Unknowingly, but definitely through his generosity, Hulot incites other characters to have fun.
One of those is Barbara, who has brushed past Hulot on a number of occasions throughout the day. She is one of a number of what Malcolm Turvey calls Tati’s “observer-figures,” people who take quiet joy in the observation of the humorous details of the places in which they are. These include the old man in Les vacances, always a few paces behind his wife on their daily walks, who takes great pleasure keenly interrogating what’s going on around him; and Hulot’s nephew, Gérard, whose relationship with Hulot is playful and affectionate, and it’s obviously taught him to be on the lookout for the strange comedy of the quotidian. Barbara, on her walkabouts, is searching for the “real Paris” to photograph and remember, and in searching, finds that oddness that Gérard so appreciates. At the Royal Garden, she’s constantly in fits of laughter at the antics of the room: whether it’s Hulot’s tireless but clumsy generosity, the American man’s shouty facilitations or the ineptitude of the waiters. Before the end, Hulot buys her a gift, and it’s the seal of a quickly formed friendship, exactly the kind of thing a city can engender when it’s not distancing people from each other.
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PlayTime is a participatory film. For its characters, through the machinations of Tati’s staging, PlayTime is about the effort it takes to enjoy themselves in the company of others; for its audience, Tati has created a bewildering and at times overwhelming concoction of visual and sonic gags that, through their sheer mass and the director’s deployment of clever techniques to mask them, threaten to avoid perception: they require that viewers actively partake in the creation of meaning and humour, and this is partly why Tati’s film has been called a “democratic” comedy. The proliferation and simultaneous timing of gags means many of them will not be spotted until the umpteenth viewing. Good: all the more time to play in the spaces Tati arranges. PlayTime is never more joyous, more euphoric, than the closing sequence: Hulot is off, the Americans are leaving for Orly and traffic is swelling while going through the roundabout before the motorway, which is styled like a merry-go-round: carnivalesque music is playing, cars are rising and falling in concert with the music, an ice cream stand attached to a travelling car is open for business in the busy lanes. The city and its inhabitants are playing: and playing, as the psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott asserts, is the search for the self. “Even after all these years,” writes Jonathan Rosenbaum, “the film still teaches me how to live in cities.” It’s not difficult to see how PlayTime’s jubilant finale — with its invocation to fashion the city to its occupants’ sense of fun, desires and needs — is perhaps Tati’s most profound statement of his participatory cinema.
Marc Nelson (@MarcDNelson) is a film critic and bookseller based in Edinburgh, Scotland. He writes for Take One Cinema and The Wee Review. Marc also blogs at theworldentire.com.