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.
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.