Playtime and the beautiful comedy of pain

By Eli Boonin-Vail

It is a rare film indeed that achieves both massiveness and subtlety. Jacques Tati’s magnum opus Playtime (1967) is one such film: a painstakingly choreographed comedic jeremiad against the encroaching inhumanity of modern life. Set amidst and against a massive steel and glass backdrop of consumerism, compartmentalization, and sleek luxury which the set creators dubbed “Tativille,” Playtime has a cast of hundreds yet manages to feel intimate, personal, and even voyeuristic. What the film cost its director is immeasurable, not merely in the years or Francs it took to produce, but in the raw creative energy it required from him. Playtime is to French comedy what 8 ½ is to Italian modern cinema, an unbridled project of passion which presents us with a worldview so complete as to nearly perfectly mimic the auteur’s own. Though less jaded and slow than many of its counterparts, it deserves to be considered as one of the boldest and most beautiful products of a French cinematic visionary.

Constructed with the same comic sensibility that guided Tati’s other great works like Mon Oncle and Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot, Playtime weaves between the exploits of Tati’s iconic M. Hulot and an American tourist named Barbara as they clumsily attempt to navigate modern Paris and its endless crowds. During its production, Tati was nearing 60 and tiring of the Hulot persona that had made him the Chaplin of France. One can sense his reluctance to continue as Hulot in the film. The camera often wanders away from Hulot, and when he is present he is often haggard, confused, and lost. Like Chaplin did with Modern Times, Tati uses the hagiography constructed around his own cinematic iconography from previous films to make a point about modern life, about its painful shallowness and its hollow isolation. One can trace Hulot’s fleeting encounters with Barbara in Playtime back to many a Chaplin Femme, especially Virginia Cherril’s blind girl in City Lights. The film takes this notion a step further, serving as an illustration of how the modern world renders oldsters like Tati and Hulot out of place and irrelevant. Hulot’s tragicomic obsolescence within Playtime is the beating heart of the film. It lays bare Tati’s own anxieties about the onslaught of modernity that threatened to render his own generation ancillary to the progress of the world.

Playtime is a comedy about modern pain. Its jokes are constructed out of pain, whether it be the pain of loneliness as you watch television in your apartment, the pain of walking into doors which you cannot see, or the pain of waiting in traffic. The characters are caught up in a world made by humans but not for humans. Chairs cannot be sat on, doors cannot be opened, and buildings cannot be lived in comfortably. Tati avoids the usage of close-up photography on this film, placing his body within a modern prison/playground of glass walls and sharp edges that tear at clothes and detest the human form. Playtime’s visual logic adheres to what many film scholars will say about the classic silent era of comedy by eschewing real-world necessities and focusing on what can be seen. This logic is most classically on display in the restaurant sequence with the shattered door, where Tati capitalizes on his previous training as a mime to suggest the essence of a glass door after the real one is no longer there. This gag does not make sense in the real world, but within the world of Lloyd, Keaton, Chaplin, Hulot, and cinema, it works.

Another such gag occurs when Hulot boards a crowded bus. One nameless character has purchased a tall standing lamp, which Hulot and several other characters mistake for a support rail on the bus and hold onto. When the character exits the bus, all of the people holding onto his lampstand exit with him as if they were still holding onto a pole on the bus. This joke not only fits well within the visual logic of classic comedy cinema, it deconstructs and emphasizes the process that the audience of such a joke goes through. It does not make sense within the physics of reality, but when we all hold fast to it with our convictions it gains strength. The men hold up the pole and in so doing hold up the joke.

By applying an old-world aesthetic and philosophy of comedy to the modern world, Playtime achieves a stinging critique of its times. Life is presented as alternately painful, isolated, absurd, and inhuman among systems not designed for human form. With its emphasis on glass and light, the film plays on cinematic perceptions to delve into how people live and work together yet separated. By anchoring its camera around tourism, Playtime further reinforces notions of commodification and isolation. Hulot is a singular tourist from the French countryside. Barabara and her cohort are on a guided tour with “Economic Airlines” for the duration of the film. Just as the modern city divides up life into small consumable portions of bland indistinct quadrants, so too does modern travel turn the entire world into the same consumable experience. Think of the posters in the lobby of the hotel that all heavily feature the same bland building highlighted over and over again in different exotic locales.

A comedy that dares to risk being boring for the sake of observation and critique, a stirring melodrama of human indifference, Tati’s Playtime displays a remarkable compassion towards that which goes unexamined. It is a film that delves into the contradictions, corruptions, absurdities, irritations, and pains of life, yet you cannot help but smile the whole way through. It is a Camus-esque vision of postmodern life vividly painted on a celluloid canvas with humor and gusto. Despite its magnificent bleakness it is a film with a profound lust for life at its center. It is so grey and yet so colorful.

 

 

 

Eli Boonin-Vail studied film, history, and gender studies at Brandeis University. He blogs about comics, film, gender, pop culture, and occasionally politics on Medium.