I sometimes wonder how a film like “Playtime” can exist. Imagine being Jacques Tati going to a studio asking for financing to basically create your own city. The exteriors would be buildings big enough to pass for skyscrapers, while the interiors would be functional looking offices, restaurants, apartments and airports. All the while it would be shot on 70mm and released only in theatres that would accommodate that type of screening. Oh yeah, also the film doesn’t have much of a plot, but at least it’s a comedy.
It’s no wonder Tati went bankrupt creating his magnum opus. He may not have gotten rich, but at least he left an indelible mark in the world of cinema, and created a truly unique film that cannot be duplicated.
“Playtime” is a film we are invited to experience. It isn’t held together so much by plot, but rather a series of occurrences that include not just astute, and amusing observations on human beings but also the world they inhabit. We are presented with a modern-day Paris, which is more preoccupied with showcasing what is current and new to the city rather than focusing on the older aspects. Classical iconography such as the Eiffel tower and the Arc de triomphe are shown only through reflection giving us traces of a world gone by.
Tati enters (or stumbles) into the film as his memorable character Monsieur Hulot who appeared in his last two films and became a phenomenon. Here he navigates through as if he’s lost in a maze, trying to comprehend how to operate each new modern obstacle. Whether it’s a newly cushioned chair in a waiting room, or a parade of cubicles designed for efficiency but operate with the opposite effect, Tati seems to revel in the ridiculousness of these technological deathtraps. Much of the humour from these contraptions come from the needless complications they bring to daily life. For Hulot, it’s a struggle just to get from one area of a building to the next.
Tati himself was a traditionalist, with all of his films inhabiting the spirit of silent comedy. “Playtime” is a sound film with bits of dialogue said throughout, but it’s mostly inconsequential, and plays as background noise. Even the look evokes a black and white quality with most of the actors in greyish outfits. Hulot himself is seen sporting darker colour tones than usual. The sets give off the drab feeling of sameness with white flooring and glass imagery displayed throughout every building. We do see splashes of color here and there which refer to a brighter, more innocent past that Tati seems to long for.
This aesthetic sounds as if it would fit in today’s modern dystopian visions of the future or maybe even the present, yet Tati’s sensibilities don’t allow for such bleakness. Rather he seems more interested with how human beings adapt and function in such absurd surroundings. This is never displayed better than with the film’s penultimate set piece, that of a newly opened high-tech restaurant which hasn’t worked out all of its kinks yet. The scene is a slow build starting with minor disruptions such as a tile from the floor coming unglued. Pretty soon the entire building is falling apart and is even exemplified by one unlucky waiter who begins to lose a piece of his uniform one by one as the evening progresses.
“Playtime” could be seen as a cautionary tale about the frenzied pace of the modern world, especially when viewed today, where technology has pretty much taken over. But there is so much joy to be found in this film, amongst the chaos. Tati seems to be at odds with the modern era but also fascinated by it. Take the film’s finale which is a traffic jam. Everyone seems to be driving in a circle, in what strangely resembles that of the Earth rotating. It’s a jolly scene depicting something of an amusement park ride. I feel that Tati is making a comment on the human race itself. The journey through life is like a ride, exciting and absurd, it’s here for us to enjoy and explore, even if it may lead one day to oblivion. Play on.