If viewed as a visual essay on modernity, Playtime ranks among the best of all film projects with similar ambitions. Despite using subtle and sporadic dialogue, director Jacques Tati’s film can be considered one of the best silent comedies ever made.
- Director: Jacques Tati
- Writer: Jacques Tati, Jacques Lagrange, Art Buchwald
- Cast: Jacques Tati and a long list of non-actors
A group of American tourists go to Paris looking for the vibrant city most would expect to find. Instead, they run into a part of the city where all semblance of a bohemian atmosphere has been replaced by a monotonous modern environment of gadgets, glass, steel, and plastic. We also get Mr. Hulot, the comedic character for whom Tati became most known.
Don’t expect a formulaic three act story. Playtime feels like a unique experience, comprised of several vignettes where modern technology is viewed as a type of antithesis to human progress. A discomforting sense of order and conformity dominates a monotonous landscape filled with uniformly colored suits and cars. Linear designs run through everything, from the placement of street lights to the layout of cubicles and file cabinets. The Mr. Hulot character had successfully debuted in Mon Oncle nearly a decade prior to Playtime. By the late 60′s however, Mr. Hulot had gradually lost his charm, and Tati rightfully reduced him to occasional appearances here. When he does show up, his wandering clumsiness is cleverly contrasted with characters who move as methodically as components of a machine. When people finally do get a chance to cut loose on a dance floor they move with a wacky sense of abandon.
Shot on 70mm, Tati makes grand use of widescreen frames to observe modern social behaviors. From the opening shot of the film at an airport Tati encourages human observation by establishing a fishbowl effect that would have made this a promising candidate for 3D considerations. The widescreen lends itself effectively to create spatial depth, a creative choice that adds much to the sense of being lost within a larger order. The first ten minutes of the film pass before we get a sense of direction. But with a combination of choreographed action and grand sets of painstaking detail, Tati invites us to consider his sustained visual statements. The visual comedy is further supported by creative sound effects that are edited to create interesting juxtapositions. Take for instance the imagery of fluid movements within a traffic roundabout set to circus music, as if to suggest passive passengers on a carnival ride.
Brief Words for Mr. Ebert:
By using visual comedy, Tati was a great humorist, one with the ability to provide intricate commentary on a purely visual level. Ebert’s review is absolutely astute in reminding us that, “instead of plot it has a cascade of incidents, instead of central characters it has a cast of hundreds, instead of being a comedy it is a wondrous act of observation.” By conveying to his readers that this film is among few for which explaining or even recounting its moments is to miss the point.
Good, Bad or Great Movie: GREAT
Do you like Playtime? Do you consider this film to be Good, Bad, or does it stand up as Great?
Next week’s review: Senso
Years ago, ScreenCrave contributor Jaime Lopez privately began tackling Roger Ebert’s “Greatest Films” list, a monolith of celluloid currently comprised of approximately 363 films (more if you count the trilogies, the Up docs and Decalogue). Lopez has set himself to put these remaining films’ “Greatness” to the test–reviewing both the movies themselves and Ebert’s response. By taking on Jacques Tati’s Playtime this week, he now has 350 under his belt and less than 15 films left to go.