Only one Jacques Tati film managed to find its way on to the TIFF Essential 100 list, which is great considering that besides being credited with the script for The Illusionist I had no prior experience with the prolific comedy director. Playtime is Tati’s fourth work as a director and is a film that barely made the cut, at #100 on the previously mentioned list. While it would have probably eluded me for many more years had it not been on the list, I am extremely excited that it did make the list, because my experience with this cinematic achievement was more than wonderful. Playtime, arguably, lacks a narrative structure and appears to be a series of lengthy vignettes and despite this manages to tap into a very cynical and disparaging commentary on human interactions in a world that is becoming increasingly dependent on the advances of technology around them, a pretty hefty commentary for a film that was made decades before the introduction of cellular phones or even the internet. Tati’s film, is nothing less than a fully realized condemnation about everything he witnessed destroying Paris, mostly an unstoppable globalization that was causing mass conformity and disillusionment and every line of dialogue and each subtle filming choice reflects this notion completely. Playtime, yet another great film that suffered from unreasonable editing demands, will likely prove to be my favorite Tati film, as well as one of the best commentaries on modernity to date.
Playtime, while certainly not traditional in its narrative, nonetheless has some semblance of a plot. Viewers are introduced to an incredibly modernized Paris with high symmetrical skyscrapers and seemingly formulaic individuals. People are passing through what appears to be a airport terminal, although it is hard to determine whether or not this is the case. In this terminal, viewers see everyone from regular citizens, to religious figures, as well as a slew of foreign tourists, most of whom are German and American. Peppered into these interactions are Tati’s most well known character Monsieur Hulot, a fumbling man whose attempts to be a gentleman, always end up in quixiotic absurdity. However, while Hulot is usually the center of attention within Tati’s work, he merely interacts with the environment in this narrative, often falling into the back of scenes and being ignored entirely, individuals even go so far as to mistake other extras for him. After this interaction Hulot wanders into a trade expo that includes superfluous luxuries such as soundless doors and wastebins fashioned to look like Greek columns, Tati in a stroke of genius makes sure that the American characters find particular joy in messing with these inventions. Hulot then finds himself wandering Paris in the evening stopping at an old war friend’s apartment, which is shot from outside so we can see the going-ons of those in the other rooms. After this brief interaction, the rest of the film centers on the opening of a new restaurant in Paris that is clearly rushed to completion, considering that the workers are literally pushed into the back in order to open the restaurant to American tourists. However, the inability to properly run the restaurant causes the place to fall to shambles and the metaphorical glass of social performance literally breaks. The film then closes at a Parisian roundabout that clearly intends to reflect a carousel, one that is a circle of inescapability, which leads the vast cast of characters to an inevitable darkness, a rather grim film, from one of France’s funniest directors.
Tati’s film is absolutely and undeniably about the problems of society attempting to place rigid, but clear masks of conformity and normalcy onto something that is clearly random and illogical. Tati, who is by no means confused about the inherently problematic nature of human existence, throws caution to the wind when depicting modern France, a place that attempts to emit symmetrical perfection and uniform existence amongst its citizens. As the film begins, it appears as though the only character who has not adhered to this near military rigidness is Hulot, who fumbles through the scenes only to be overlooked by each individual that simply attempts to adhere to the demands of perfection. It is clear, with this in mind, that windows play a huge part to Tati’s assumption of conformity, the windows provide a transparency between the private and public world for the characters within the film, one which provides a point of references as two when it is acceptable to be an individual and when it is demanded that one must follow social norms. This is most evident in the scene in which we watch Hulot interact with his former military pal, whilst also watching another woman become irate with her television, amongst other unusual circumstances. It is because she is disengaged from the public that she finds herself not following the regulations of performance. The glass then becomes a point of concern for the rest of the film, particularly in the restaurant. As the mask of control slips from the hands of the restaurant owners it becomes clear that they can no longer pretend that everything is all right and by no coincidence things completely fall apart when the glass door to the restaurant’s entrance is broken, after this nothing is safe and the entire group of individuals become wild, employees and customers alike, which is brilliantly signaled by the emergence of some diagetic jazz music. Ultimately, the window returns in one last scene involving the roundabout in which women riding a bus are shot through the reflection of a window being cleaned. As the window rises and their reflection raises, they react with screams of exhilaration, as though they realize the fading nature of mirroring conformity. Perhaps in one of the films most sobering moments, Tati briefly shows us a reflection of the Eiffel Tower through a glass door, reminding us that somewhere behind this vain performance is a rich and vibrant history that is slowly risking falling into obscurity.
Key Scene: The “carousel” scene.