From a certain angle Jacques Tati’s PLAYTIME (1967) appears a dinosaur; an anachronism, an entity so improbable that it simply should never be able to exist today. A big-budget movie (the most expensive ever made in France at the time), it has almost no dialogue, minimal music, and no real plot to speak of. Appearing at a moment when the film world was exploding with new sounds and sensations, it is essentially a subtle silent film, made by an artist supremely confident in that realm, yet one whose first movie was made 20 years after the advent of sound. It was shot in 70mm, a big-screen movie wherein nothing big happens at all, but rather hundreds of little things. The stories surrounding it are legendary: it took almost a decade to complete; Tati had his own mini-city built on the outskirts of Paris which he bankrolled mostly out of his own pocket; the film’s commercial failure threw him deep into debt. And yet his gorgeous, gleaming monument stands; a stunning, singular achievement in the history of the cinema. Perhaps the key to tuning in to PLAYTIME’s unique wavelength begins with an understanding of its audacious author, himself a kind of living relic from a bygone age.
Born Jacques Tatischeff into a family descended from the Russian nobility, Tati shocked his relatives by choosing the odd and unpredictable occupation of Music Hall performer, honing his skills in pantomime and physical comedy. Transferring those skills to the silver screen, Tati quickly became master of his own unique and gentle form of slapstick, integrating subtle visual gags into his stories and inventing, in his second film MR. HULOT’S HOLIDAY (1953), his ideal screen persona. With his ever-present hat, coat and pipe, and his strange, halting walk, the instantly identifiable Monsieur Hulot became a hapless but lovable everyman, awkward yet ever-polite, slightly out of step with his surroundings, well-meaning yet causing chaos at every turn. In Tati’s third film, the masterful MON ONCLE (1958), that off-beat quality became a warm yet wry commentary on consumerism and man’s ridiculous quest for modernity. MON ONCLE can be summarized as the humorous incompatibility between the charmingly quaint and the garishly new, but it is still a straightforward story of people, their quirks and their things. PLAYTIME, however, is another animal entirely.
The endless quest for modernization that Tati poked fun at in MON ONCLE has taken over the world of PLAYTIME and as a result the city of Paris is now an unrecognizable maze of identical steel box buildings. (A terrific sight gag in the background has travel posters for other exotic destinations dominated by similar classless colossal constructions). PLAYTIME is less a story of individuals as one of the teeming masses that pass through the city in the course of one very busy day and night. Included in this multitude are workers from all social strata from businessman to architect to waiter to laborer, a busload of American tourists who are shuttled from one metal monstrosity to another, only glimpsing the romantic, iconic images of Paris in occasional reflection, and, of course, our Monsieur Hulot. Tati delights in confounding our expectations, delaying his arrival and, knowing we are searching for him, providing us with multiple decoys that approximate his look and his walk but are revealed as doppelgangers when confronted. (There is even at one point a black ersatz-Hulot!)
It is all part of the fun, and the fun of PLAYTIME lies in sitting back and letting it all wash over you. I will never forget my first viewing of it, here in this very theater, when I experienced a feeling similar to sinking slowly into a warm bath. It is a unique sensation, particularly freeing, to be in the hands of this brilliant filmmaker, and not to be tied to the traditional strings of story and character. While some directors spoon-feed their audience, in PLAYTIME Tati lets us come to his table and take what we will; he provides a sumptuous feast. We choose what to pay attention to, as the screen is constantly filled with a multitude of stories and a plethora of details. Emerging here and there from the carefully constructed chaos are priceless moments of hilarity, and even a glimpse of human tenderness, however fleeting, before the perpetual current of life carries the characters, and us, away. PLAYTIME rewards repeated viewing more than most movies. From a certain angle, it appears a dinosaur: endlessly fascinating, beautiful in an otherworldly way, “from another planet,” as Francois Truffaut said, utterly strange yet somehow familiar, perennially timeless and transfixing, and from which it is impossible to tear one’s eyes.