Edited in April 2016
Jacques Tati’s Playtime is the sort of ambidextrous work that grants a reviewer the blessing and curse of confronting opening lines from all angles. One might look to the evolution of Tati’s carnivalesque visionary depiction of modern society over the course of twenty years of filmmaking. Or the fact that this 1967 feature, his magnum opus in more ways than one, almost bankrupt him and went six times over budget as the famously meticulous Tati spent months upon months refilming sequences with psychotic perfectionism. Then we find the brilliantly twitchy physical comedy in the film. And the warped classicisim of the imagery and sound design that distorts and reinvents not only modernity but our place as fleshy individuals in the world. Then there’s the commendable commitment to throwing narrative cinema by the wayside in favor of Tati’s vision of space and place as human savior and human assassin, depending, of course, upon how we interact with the world around us.
All are valid angles, but I choose to start as the film does, with a group of people walking around a city and simply looking. In fact, that is how the film ends too, although various points in between lose track of the people (a group of American tourists and Tati’s own reliable country Frechman Mr. Hulot) for the greater purity of us, the audience, looking at things while the people are off looking at things elsewhere, usually just off-screen. “Looking at things” is Tati’s story, with everything in the film painstakingly detailed and delineated so that us simply perceiving the world in front of the camera is an act as enlightening as humanly possible.
Tati has us look at things both big and small, round and edgy, muted and flamboyant, rough-hewn and slippery, taciturn and boisterous, and pithy and world-changing, but his film is the great equalizer of things and looking at them, never treating any of them with greater import than anything else, caressing them with the straightforward simplicity of a fable given to the power-driven mechanics of a particularly playful and tangent-prone Ford production line. It is a film of such caution and orchestration that every individual component works as both ornamentation and girder, where every image and sound forms the fundamental architectural base of the film yet has the weightless, frivolous quality of light pleasures that bubble up to the surface. Smooth on the outside and filled with complex wonders underneath, Tati’s Playtime is the ultimate cinematic toybox. Fitting, considering Tati literally constructed a toybox version of Paris to see the film on its way.
The cantankerous, bemused Tati on screen refuses to mug for the camera, and the Tati off screen is even more straight-faced, keeping his camera at an impenetrable distance to dare us to do the work to unlock the film’s mysteries. Little details ring out, but they do not demand attention. Tati it seems is so confident in his world-in-a-box diorama that he doesn’t want to rig the setup too much in his favor. His deep focus camera captures foreground and background action rupturing the screen from all sides, darting the eye from spot to transitory spot and sublimely contrasting the density of action and reaction with the quiet, clinical facade it takes on. The forbidding greys of the opening scenes, decked out in brutalistic, rigid lines, showcase a detached city for an increasingly detached world. And there’s Tati’s Mr. Hulot sauntering through it with no way to even begin making heads or tails of it, except by simply poking around in it.
Tati thrives on these contrasts, throwing exquisitely timed, robust physical comedy of old right into modern society like a round, amorphous bullet of laughter into a slick, streamlined world that doesn’t know what to do with oblong shapes except to pack them into its angular, straight-laced vision. His work is the logical extension of Chaplin’s Modern Times where society has evolved beyond turning single humans into machine cogs and toward the greater achievement of coating humanity wholesale in its crisply corporate chrome.
It’s not merely the look of the film that sings contradiction though, but the exquisite, lumpy blanket of sound Tati invents for us. He fills the screen, on one hand, with a malignant audio drone that coats human noises like a mechanical tumor. On the other, he enlivens us with chaotic blips and bumps of human sound we can’t seem to understand but which ring out as invasive human truths anyway, fighting with the mechanical drone for supremacy in the audio space around us. The sounds and signs seem to wander about just to perplex Tati on screen, to invite perceptual participation from us as to what their purpose might be in a world that doesn’t seem to need them. More than anything, the sound of the human voice itself – regardless of what it is saying – invites us to consider its own intrinsic worth as human when we begin to lose track of which noises come from people or objects in the frame.
Playtime itself has a just ever-so musty sense about it that doesn’t always sit well with its laugh-a-minute airs, but then that is Tati’s genius of form too, and loosening up the film to create something more limber would inadvertently risk losing its grip on the more rigid formalism it uses and abuses to satirize the formality of culture set against humanity. It is Tati’s point that this sort of archly constructed world both contains wonders and hides them from us under its overbearingly static quality. His film needs the structural contrast of unpredictable, flickering whimsy and buttoned-up frigidity to elucidate the irony of this strange world we live in.
Still, the effect of this contrast grants the film the aura of its subject: beguiling and oddly charming, but only if you expend the effort into exploring its hidden crevices and misguided nooks. Thankfully, the avuncular Tati is there to guide us to some of the less expected places, but he will only ever meet us halfway. This film is thick and hearty with laughs but you’ll need to seek them out, and if this says as much about the world the film depicts as it does the film, it’s important to remember that Tati has mixed feelings about that world. Playtime is not a film that deserves mixed feelings, for Tati’s vision is too effervescent and persnickety to not fall in love with, but it is not the comedy you might be expecting, and for a less-than-committed audience, the whole affair is a bunch of breathing room with nothing on the other end.
Nonetheless, the work is as much intellectual exercise as living, breathing perception of human nature, constantly reorienting itself before our eyes in its demented quest to divine the essence of humanity through nothing but visual and audio gesture. No psychology, no narrative, none of the formally audacious but limiting tricks of cinematic screenplays and visual stylists the world over. Not even a directed camera, for heaven’s sake, but this is Tati’s point about enlivening us to our perceptions by asking us to experiment with the screen, rather than simply to have it direct us toward our destination. Watching the film, we become Tati’s Mr. Hulot, an embattled visitor to a world we don’t understand who, like Mr. Hulot, can only explore, but not explain, that world. In exploration, however, Tati reminds us of the essential individuality of our human selves, as well as, more potently, our human curiosity.
Thus, when the film begins, the calculated greys of what we assume to be a hospital transmute into a vague rumor of an airport. People battle for control of the screen, stirring up a combustible clutter that vies for control of the environment around them, until we realize that this vision is deceptively ordered, and that the people – however oblong and strange they may be – are following set paths, never clashing with one another until they err in moments of wink-and-you’ll-miss-it social curiosity. One character mistakes a man for our protagonist, and is quickly rebuked. Most tellingly, a group of women threaten to look off screen, and another character informs that this is “against the rules”.
The last gesture is for us as well as the women, reminding us of the limits of the film screen, the artificiality of the world around us, the closed nature of a frame and the directorial guided hand of viewing that Tati on screen constantly threatens by bumping into the edge’s of the world. Much like Chaplin’s Tramp, although not of the same demeanor, Hulot’s weapon against this world is also his humanity: his curiosity, his inveterate proclivity for taking apart the world, for threatening to break the rules, to explore. In one scene, while waiting to meet another man who must saunter down a perilous hallway erected almost as if to dislocate us from each other, Mr. Hulot rises to meet him too early. When a man, a negotiator of sorts, rebukes him, Tati resists again, slipping away from the rules and regiments of a world that seems almost unnaturally ordered not via a Big Brother style government but in the reflexes, the bones, of socially constructed people who are inscribed with the rules in their very aura. In standing up, Tati is failing to fit in, and re-enshrining his human capacity for fallibility and flexibility in doing so.
In another, masterful scene, Tati waits in a room for a man, and again refuses to submit. He arises, playing with the seats in a corporate waiting room, discovering the clandestine noises they emit when he pushes them down, shrinking them only to watch as they restabilize themselves into the order they’ve been erected into. The destabilizing Tati witnesses another man, an American, who seems apart of this mechanical world, construct a sort of mercenary, machine-like symphony out of the noises of everyday actions that, to us and Tati, seem flickers of human chaos. But to the American, they regiment themselves, rhythmically forming an ordered cadence that threatens to control our ears as well.
Tati, perhaps the greatest master of sound in all of cinema, attunes us to these visual and aural orders and chaoses, and how the flutters of human majesty and opinion can perceive them as either. What is order for others becomes chaos for Mr. Hulot, but more importantly, what initially seems like a screw-loose visual circus becomes a perceptual, cognitive battle between the order of cinema that teaches us to view things one way and our inner curiosities, striving like Tati to reorient and reinterpret them anew. The entirety of the film becomes an active verb, rather than a fixed noun, and we have to follow it down its own rabbit hole as we watch the meticulous, Machiavellian order and malleable chaos of its construction duke it out for control of our consciousnesses.
It is thus that the construction of the film, a veritable battleground between stasis and kinesis, fluidity and rigidity, becomes a courtroom case for our very identities as humans. The title, Playtime, is not only a statement of fact but a moral clause, a polemic for cinematic play as well as perceptual play with the screen and the world, for freeing ourselves from the confines of accepted norms both as people who experience the world and people who debate with the screen. Tati says we must look, hear, prod, poke, and save ourselves from stagnancy in doing so. Ossifying oneself while watching, making assumptions about the state of the world, denies us the inevitable curiosity that Tati values above all else, so he shifts and slips and ensnares us in a work that is constantly asking us to experience itself anew – to reanalyze our perceptions – with every scene. It’s a filmic statement to not fitting in as the essence of life, enshrined, masterfully, in a filmic object (both Mr. Hulot and Playtime, itself as a film) that so wonderfully and patently does not fit in with the cinematic world around it.
As a work of intellectual diligence and sheer depth of craftsmanship, Playtime is unimpeachable, almost certainly the most thoughtfully constructed comedy ever put to screen. It’s a singular achievement, and a forward-thinking button-pusher that took the central non-narrative gamesmanship that made Tati the man he was and gave itself the wings of a profound social critique. It is perhaps the purest work of mise en scene ever released, and for someone willing to unlock its mysteries, it’s one of the most wonderful worlds ever given to a single person’s imagination. All you have to do is open yourselves up to it – for Tati, we may already be dead, and curiosity is the only thing that can give us life.
As such, the mise en scene is positively, almost psychotically, alive with contradictory imaginative spaces rigidly defined in their own rules and world views, Tati slowly enlivening us to the wonderful chaos of life missed by those who flatten it with limited perspectives. It’s not for nothing that Tati engorged the film with frames inscribed within frames, visually limiting us into prescribed perspectives that Tati’s edits then shift or trip up. His film is a constant act of perspective construction and redefinition, imaginatively attuning us to the fallibility of viewing any event from a single cinematic perspective, as many of his characters do. Except limber Hulot, who alone can envision a lamp as a trolley pole, not because he actively wishes to deconstruct society, but simply because he approaches life from a different perspective.
Until his particular brand of chaos infectiously invades the other characters too when a rogue nightclub goes haywire before our eyes, the mania of the psychosomatic day-glo colors interrupting the antiseptic grey angles from before. Social construction unwinds before our eyes in a sublime sequence where a restaurant door evaporates into glass shared, only for everyone to pretend like it still exists to preserve the imaginative rule set they live by. In opposition, inside the restaurant, a roof caves in and the newly flexible patrons imagine a door to a dance party out of the debris. The ossification of social rules tumbles out the window before our very eyes, some characters desperately clinging to anything they can (in this case a lone door handle) trying to re-entrench a phantom of social order while other people imbue themselves with the spirit of newly minted perspectives on life. In its deconstructed, anti-narrative vision of life, the film infects us with a new lease on the world, and cinema, as well.
Which brings us back to those chairs – for Tati, the entire meaning of life is inscribed somewhere in the mystical cushiony noises of those chairs, and the act of stopping to touch them, to wonder about why and how the noises come out, to notice the world and imagine rather than to simply walk through the world. In the battle between Mr. Hulot, pushing the chair down, and the chairs reordering themselves by inflating back to their original positions, Tati locates the essence of the human will to discover that which doesn’t want to be found. Which is, in essence, what the film in itself is: an object that asks us to notice it as living, feeling, touchable cinema to be interacted with rather than simply to sit back and accept the rules of cinema as we know it. A message movie where the message is the film’s form, and where the meaning could not be replicated in any other art form, nor in any treatise about that film. Now that is a rare and unclassifiable beast of a film, and a sublime one.