Directed by: Jacques Tati » “Written” by: Art Buchwald, Jacques Lagrange &: Jacques Tati, 1967 » Region/Time: France, 126 minutes.
Starring: Jacques Tati as Monsieur Hulot » Barbara Dennek as Young Tourist » and many, many others.
WARNING: This movie is not like any other movie you have seen. There is no plot. While there is nominally a main character, the protagonist is really New Paris. Or maybe you could argue that New Paris is the villain and Old Paris is the hero. In addition to the complete lack of a plot or main character, this movie should also be seen on the biggest screen possible. It is unlikely you will ever get the chance to see it projected in 70 mm at a large theatre, but if you hear about it, go! (A blu-ray version of the film is being released August 19)
Jacques Tati was a French comedian who created Monsieur Hulot, one of the most beloved comedy characters. Check out his home page. The M. Hulot character starred in the 1953 film M Hulot’s Holiday and then won the Best Foreign Film Oscar for Mon Oncle in 1958. Playtime was Tati’s third outing as M. Hulot. M. Hulot, the inspiration for Rowan Atkinson’s Mr. Bean character, is an old-fashioned, clumsy and somewhat socially inept ex-Army veteran. Unlike Mr. Bean, however, Hulot is kind-hearted and creates chaos only through accident. He frequently stands up for the old France, against the modern world of steel and glass.
Tati agreed to make Hulot’s third picture in 1959, but Playtime was not released until 1967. Tati had a grand vision for the film and wanted to experiment with the very form of movies. He envisioned a movie in which an entire city was created on film – a movie that allowed the viewer to choose what they would watch. Indeed, Playtime really requires the viewer to make an effort to observe the film. Using the immensely detailed 70 mm film stock, most of the film is composed in long or medium shots, where the frame is teeming with characters and passers-by. It is possible to miss a joke unfolding on one part of the screen because you are busy paying attention to something taking place in another part of the screen. This carefully groomed chaos allows the movie to be different with each subsequent viewing.
Allow me to illustrate. The film opens in a large, clean waiting room of an indeterminate building. In the left foreground is a husband and wife couple. She has packed some clothes for him and is giving him a series of instructions. Because of some other people in the background, we first think this is in a hospital. Later, we realise it is an airport. It wasn’t until the latest viewing of the film that I noticed in a later scene that it is the wife who is leaving on the plane, NOT the husband (I was busy watching the CEO of a company arrive accompanied by photographers) – the joke being that she was packing clothes for him so that he could survive at home while she was away. Later in the film, he is having a snack in an after-hours bar looking very unhappy. I guess he couldn’t figure out how to warm up his food. Needless-to-say, the first several times I watched this film, this joke completely passed me by.
As far as a plot goes, M. Hulot arrives at the airport (in the distant background of one shot), goes for a job interview in a large, mostly glass building, tries to see a man with a blue folder, ends up in a showroom for business and home supplies, goes home on the bus, visits a friend, goes to a restaurant and meets a tourist who heads back to the airport at dawn. But in reality, this film is about “everyone.” It is possible to follow any number of characters as they spend a day and night in “Paris.” M. Hulot and the female tourist (played by his paramour of the moment, Barbara Denneck) are the two most obvious characters. The man with the blue folder is a favourite of mine, as well as the annoying American businessman and the stocky tourist with his cameras, who goes around looking supremely unimpressed at everything. Also watch for a plethora of jokes about glass and reflections: Hulot gets lost following “blue folder’s” reflection, a man tries to light a cigarette through a glass window, a glass door breaks and a doorman pretends it is still there by simply moving the handle and the fleeting reflections of the Eiffel Tower, Sacre Coeur and Arc de Triomphe.
The entire set was built by Tati at great expense. It was called Tativille and included roads, working electricity – he even built a number of real skyscrapers. Kent Jones writes that “Tati’s Specta Films employed 100 construction workers to make two buildings out of 11,700 square feet of glass, 38,700 square feet of plastic, 31,500 square feet of timber and 486,000 square feet of concrete. Tativille had its own power plant and approach road and building number one had its own working escalator.” When criticized over the vast expense required to create this movie, Tati countered by saying it was no more costly than hiring Sophia Loren. Some say that Playtime decries these concrete, steel and glass urban spaces as inhospitable. While I think there is some of that in the movie, I think Tati also shows how human activity serves to alter these environments and add the needed organic components.
Like Fitzcarraldo (see #80), Playtime is a film of sheer hubris and folly. It took almost two years to shoot and after release, Tati kept re-editing and tinkering with the running time. The 126 minute cut is the longest one in existence, although there was an original 151-minute cut. While it was a critical success, Playtime was an expensive commercial failure, resulting in Tati’s bankruptcy and the loss of control over his earlier films. He would never again get to make another big budget film.
If Hulot amuses you in this film, then be sure to check out M. Hulot’s Holiday and Mon Oncle, in which he has the starring role, instead of just wandering through the background. The later, much lower-budget Trafic is also worth catching. Roger Ebert gives the following advice on watching this film: “Playtime is a peculiar, mysterious, magical film. Perhaps you should see it as a preparation for seeing it; the first time won’t quite work.”
Up Next in the Film Canon: The death of the 1970s and birth of the 1980s are embodied in one sprawling tale of porn, cocaine and betamax.