Jacques Tati spent about a decade prepping, raising money for, and making his magnum opus of gentle comedy and visual gags, and it pretty much ended his career. He managed to get two more films off the ground before he died (one on Swedish television), but the expense of the film combined with its financial failure at the box office sent him into bankruptcy personally. That’s really unfortunate because PlayTime is one of the most wonderful, warm, and genuinely funny comedies ever made. It ends with one of the great extended comic sequences in film. Tati knew exactly what he was doing when he made this film.
Tati’s character of M. Hulot arrives in Paris to visit a representative of a corporation about something. We never, ever find out what the point of the conversation is, but the point is never the point. The point of getting Hulot into Paris is to see him get lost in the modernity of the modern French city. Alongside him into the city come a collection of American tourists, most particularly the Hulot kindred spirit Barbara (Barbara Dennek). On this holiday to Paris, she and her host of other American women are shuttled from the airport to their hotel with a stop off at an expo of technology, only ever seeing the older sights of the City of Lights in the most peripheral of ways, namely in reflections on the large glass doors and windows of this modern version of Paris.
The action follows Hulot mostly, as he enters the large corporate building with the man he needs to speak to, and I have to say that if this opening bit, with Hulot chasing around this businessman in the almost brutalist vision of modern design that Tati had built at the famous open-air set called Tativille, was not the single largest inspiration for Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, I will eat my shoe. The use of sound effects, the angular design, and the way that Hulot so easily gets lost in it reminds me so much of Gilliam that I think the inspiration is undeniable (of course, Terry Jones, Gilliam’s fellow director Python, did several video introductions for Tati’s films on the Criterion Collection’s home video releases). And this architecture is the main source of gags.
In Jour du Fete, Tati found gags in an old French town. In M. Hulot’s Holiday, he found them in a seaside town. In Mon Oncle, he found them in a modern house. In PlayTime, Tati finds his gags, humor, and humanity in a city. There are bits about echoing footsteps down a long hall, repeated bits about contemporary furniture, and getting lost in a featureless, repetitive design structure. When Tati was asked about the star of the film in response to Hulot’s relative lack of presence compared to Hulot’s previous cinematic adventures, he called the architecture the star, and it’s very true in the best of ways.
The film is really about the absurdities and alienation of modern Parisian life. The quaint corner of the city that Hulot lived in over the course of Mon Oncle is gone, replaced by the twenty-story tall buildings that all look alike (one of my favorite visual gags in the film is a series of travel posters for different cities that all feature the same building dominating the image). It’s impersonal, and the American tourists who show up to Paris are completely enraptured by it. This is where the reflections of traditional Parisian sights becomes important. There’s a great moment when the American women are going into the Expo and one of them excitedly says that the place has American stuff as well. They take no time to consider the one bit of green in the whole area, a small flower stand by the road. Barbara wishes to take the picture of the old woman running it, but the tourists and denizens of modern Paris just keep getting in the way.
One of the most delightful sequences happens that night. Tati has gotten turned around without meeting the businessman he needs to speak to, and he ends up at the residence of an old friend. The entire sequence is filmed from the street. We get no sound from within the apartment because we can see it all through the giant glass window that marks their street view wall. Demonstrating a certain lack of privacy (we never saw inside Hulot’s residence in Mon Oncle even though we spent a good time outside of it) as well as the commonality of existence in the modern world, we watch four different sets of families go through the same routines, most particularly the watching of television. Tati embeds the televisions in the shared wall between apartments so, at certain angles, it looks like people are watching each other. Through all of this is just that Tati brand of gentle comedy, never mean spirited or harsh, but always insightful and almost touching.
The comic centerpiece of the film is the grand opening of the newest thing in the new city of Paris, a fancy restaurant. This might be the most accomplished, complex, and deliriously funny pieces of extended and ever-building comedy I’ve seen in a film. From the sequence’s opening moments where the proprietor is shoeing away builders from the first customers to the steady realizations of imperfections in the design (overhanging fixtures that get in the way of the barman, the window to the kitchen being too small for the larger plates, the backs of the chairs leaving imprints of crowns on the backs of men’s suits and women’s bare backs) to the absolute chaos as parts of the place come crashing down, comedic element builds on top of comedic element. Hulot is missing from about the first half of it, eventually roped into the chaos by the doorman who knows him, but the film never loses its humanist core. Mostly, it ends up focusing on a waiter who tears his pants on the chairs and has to sit out the rest of the evening, giving up more and more bits of his clothing to other waiters so that they can go on with their work. His resignation as he takes the shoe of another, the sole flapping up and down, is surprisingly sad, actually.
And that’s one of the great appeals about Tati. He conveys surprisingly complex ideas and emotions through this comedy. So, on the one hand you have great visual gags like the airline employee’s feet dancing back and forth underneath a sign, and on the other you have people dealing with their lost humanity in the face of the modern world where everything must be in order. There’s a real sad and human core to the spectacle of humor.
Tati made a huge mistake when he insisted that only theaters that could project 70mm film and had the advanced sound systems that could accommodate his complex 3.0 surround system. It greatly limited the number of theaters that could even show the film. He was trying to pull the French film industry forward, but it was an expensive move that it couldn’t make. The film flopped horribly. He went into personal bankruptcy over it. He only made one more theatrical film. I wish he had made more. Tati was one of the most talented cinematic comedians who used every element of the medium to deliver his unique style of laughter and joy. I could have done with another dozen of his films.