It took a while, but now it’s time to look at Jacques Tati’s dream project, Playtime. Considered Tati’s masterpiece, Playtime places the iconic M. Hulot in a futuristic city and lets him play with gadgets. Joining him are a group of American Tourists. Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to Tativille.
A Birdman-like drumbeat plays over cloudy skies in the opening scene. Better take all this in, Folks. It’s going to a long time before you see any sign of nature. From then on, it’s all skyscrapers from here. Also, music is replaced by the sounds of futuristic gadgets and collective footsteps.
Hulot arrives in hopes of getting a job. Due to endless glass reflections, Hulot keeps missing his interviewer. This begins Hulot’s series of misadventures throughout the film. At least, that’s what a quarter of the movie is. Not only is Hulot barely in the film, but there are multiple imposters to throw the audience off. Instead, the film constantly shifts its focus from character to characters, including some American tourists, a German inventor and waiters in an unfinished restaurant.
Playtime is probably one of the riskiest films ever made. It was a risk on a storytelling level considering there is no plot all. Instead, Tati gathers a group of complete strangers, places them in a wide environment and watches it all on a wide angle lens. Judging by the documentary features, every character served a purpose. The criterion DVD includes footage of Tati coaching each actor on his/her exact movements.
The world they inhabit is a world where the modernist suburbia of Mon Oncle has taken over. In this sterile, futuristic nightmare, rural buildings have been replaced by interchangeable glass buildings tall enough to block the sky. Any sign of French culture comes from reflections of the Eiffel tower. The only sign of nature is a little flower shop on the sidewalk. To fulfill his vision, Tati practically built a whole city, where he could move around buildings for scenes. On a visual standpoint, it’s worth it because it gives the film a sense of environment and furthers the theme of progress at the cost of culture.
In my reviews of earlier Tati films, I’d focus on a particular aspect of Tati’s filmmaking. In Jour de Fete, I noticed his sense of community in his films. In Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday, I focused on his pacing. In Mon Oncle, I’ve focused on his satire. I think now’s the time to look at Tati’s emphasis on sound. While most filmmakers expect sound to blend into the background, Tati calls attention to it. The sound effects work on a range of levels. Sound is used to distinguish a character, including a traveller with a travel label always flapping. Sound establishes the theme of conformity with all the chairs that go WHOOSH! Most of all, sound provides the film’s most unique humor, especially with the door that never slams shut.
Equal to the sound effects are the visual gags. Taking full advantage of this visual medium, the sight gags come in a variety of forms. There are surreal gags including nuns flapping veil and minor amusements of everyday life, like a guy asks another for a cigarette not realizing there’s a window in between them. He finds humor in the interchangeable environment where you can’t tell a hospital from the airport and finds humor in misunderstandings with the multiple Hulots. As a result, you don’t so much watch a Tati film as you observe it. Easter egg hunters will take pleasure finding every hidden joke and every background story in the film.
Tati took a huge gamble with what was one of the most expensive films from France. Not only did this gamble not pay off but it would end up ruining his life. It was met with mixed reviews and little box office dollars. American Distributors didn’t help by refusing to release the film in America. For the rest of his life, Tati would remain in debt and lose ownership of his own movies. Despite multiple petitions to the French minister of culture and offers from a Foreign Production Company and plans to turn the set into a film school, the set ended up destroyed. It breaks your heart to know his masterpiece lead to his downfall. Was it worth it? In a business perspective, no. In an artistic perspective, the answer’s not so simple.
 I have said in previous reviews Tatis’ films don’t go for big laughs. Each film always has one side splitting exception. In Jour De Fete, it was the over the top Postal Worker short film that looked more like Top Gun than postal work. In M. Hulot’s Holiday, it was the kayak scene. In Mon Oncle, it was the hose making machine going haywire. Playtime’s exception is the aforementioned doors.