A heightened reality of Brutalist and Bauhaus architecture, Jaques Tati’s 1966 film Playtime, which he also stars in, is an amazing film. Staid, gray buildings, gridlocked cars, clinical business interiors: everything looking like it’s straight out of a design magazine. It’s a slap-sticky, carefully choreographed romp through steel and glass Paris, full of bizarre trade-shows, and half-built haute restaurants in which everything goes wrong amidst circus-like modernity. It addresses the alienation felt by many in the 60’s, with its aseptic buildings and weird cookie-cutter stereotypes of seersucker-suited, fedora-donned “executives.” Some of the most brilliant satire in the movie takes aim at the sterile architecture of the time. A perfect example is the opening scene, in which a janitor cranes his head to look for dirt to sweep up in a perfectly clean airport, sadly dragging along his mop.
Not long after, we’re introduced to Mr. Hulot, the character Tati always played in his comedies. Hulot is much like Chaplin’s Tramp, in his signature high-waisted pants, umbrella in hand, hat rakishly on his head. Only it’s not Hulot. It’s a “Pseudo-Hulot” – an actor imitating Hulot walking through the set – many of which are scattered throughout the film. These ‘Pseudo-Hulot’s’ and obvious mannequins are meant to throw off the viewer, to show a pre-packaged, soulless city in which identity is amorphous, just as fluid as the cars ambling through Parisian streets. It’s offsetting and Mr. Tati even makes the choice to scatter obvious mannequins around the set amongst extras. This movie could definitely afford the extras, as it’s budget was far from shoestring. Huge cityscapes were built for the film on a massive set known as ‘Tativille’. The film is so packed with extras and abound with action that Tati can barely be called the main character. Tati’s Hulot always shares the screen with hundreds of extras cavorting around set at once.
A Great Sprawl.
Hulot (our almost lead character) is mythic (as pictured below,) a timeless, almost-nameless figure. He’s much like Tintin or the aforementioned Tramp (the name Hulot itself supposedly echoes Charlot, the French name given to the Tramp.) He is characterized by his clothing and actions, a near mute who bumbles through his surrounding in striped socks, puffing idly at his pipe. However, unlike the Tramp and Tintin, the film doesn’t hinge on him in any way. He is a framing device for the movie, utterly peripheral, but coming in now and again to introduce us to a certain scene. However, Hulot has that mysticism about him, as if he is immortal. We can imagine him walking out of a peat bog millions of years ago with pipe still in hand, hat jauntily on his head, umbrella swinging on his arm, profoundly confused as he always is. He seems to come from a time simpler than any time that ever was.
M. Hulot, considering the devil.
The film’s plot is sparse. It rather follows our mythical Mr. Hulot as he walks around Paris, visiting gibbering American tourists, falling for a pretty American woman, visiting a friend who has a strange apartment at street level (with huge bay windows so any passerby can see him), going to a fancy restaurant that hasn’t been fully built, trying to find a man in a massive, cubicle-filled office space (which is also a prescient scene because this film was made before the advent of cubicles,) going to a strange trade show, and simply interacting with street-people.
The plot may not sound remotely interesting, but the slapstick approach is brilliant and the minimal plot is enlivened by the fact that every extra is choreographed. Extras you may not even notice often play out magnificent gags you’d never see unless you strain your eyes and look well beyond Hulot, who acts as the focal point of most scenes. Running jokes are stretched to no end and involve each and everybody on set. One such scene takes place in a haute restaurant. Mr. Hulot breaks a pane-glass door whilst entering so the doorman has to pretend the door is still there by holding the door-handle in front of him. This is a great extended gag. Overall, this film rarely evokes thunderous laughter but the gags are clever as can be. The restaurant slowly falls apart just after it’s built, a fish is brought to a table and is seasoned over and over again and never served, a waiter rips an article of clothing and has to exchange each clean article of clothing for every other waiter’s ruined article of clothing, the high-back steel chairs leave crown-shaped marks on everybody’s backs and rip peoples’ pants, and stumbling drunks bumble into the restaurant only to be hurled outside again by a bouncer. It may not sound like much, but Playtime is manic, tightly constructed, and absolutely magnificent.
As the controlled, up-market society slowly crumbles (walls fall down, fixtures ripped out the ceiling) people start to warm up and enjoy each-other more. The controlled environment crumbles and lower-class people start to wander in: scrubby drunks, guitar-wielding beatniks, and other odd sorts. It shows the overthrow of artificiality and a brief moment when über-modern, “upright” society breaks down and can no longer control people. The music, starting in tame Latin music, crescendoing in hot Jazz, and playing down into a chanteuse singer belting out classic French songs. It turns the whole scene into a madcap, brilliant dance. The physicality is brilliant, the hang-dog drunks, the dejected waiter, the loud red-faced American, the Frenchmen puffed up with pretense, and the horrified architect. It’s all absolutely brilliant. Even if slapstick isn’t your bag, Playtime is tremendously fun.
This is a movie you can puff your pipe at, as well as laugh along with. It’s madcap, frenetic, yet underplayed as well, never being too in your face or too loud with it’s humor. Think of a downplayed Charlie Chaplin film with great gags, some of which can be over-your-head the first time around. I entreat you to watch this film. It’s got a good deal to say on the vices of modernity too, whether it be utilitarian design or the sapping of a city’s soul. Paris for example, is only seen in small doses, and iconic spots like the Eiffel tower and Montmartre, are only seen in the reflections of pane-glass doors. A flower vendor on a curbside that Mr. Hulot visits is a rare example of a holdfast against overwhelming modernity. And the film, overall, is made beautifully, shot on 70mm film. The movie is shot minimally, reflecting the sterile architecture in the film, but is composed mostly of long takes and doesn’t have a single close-up, forcing the entire movie to rely on physicality.
In closing, let me offer a word of caution, along with my strong endorsement. As an introduction to Jaques Tati’s films, Playtime may not be the best. The 1953 Mr. Hulot’s Holiday is more contained, with less furbelows and frills than Playtime, which sometimes indulges itself in slobbering over it’s own royal budget and ridiculously high production value. The production value however, is generally well spent and this film is definitely worth your while. It will remind you of how great slapstick was, verily a dead genre, and will definitely succeed in making you laugh. As well as lambasting an increasingly-familiar sterile world, full of people who blunder through their daily routine without noticing much of what is important. It also convinces us to appreciate the strange alienating beauty of the modern world. The last scene especially brings this across, showing a Fellini-esque cavalcade of cars bounding up and down on hydraulic lifts in an auto-shop, colorful cars driving madly around a fountain. Our modern world, full of rain-slicked cement and neon, and completely departed from what it used to be, still has a great deal of beauty. The film brings this out in it’s incredible attention to sound; sandals flopping, drunks belching, shoes clicking, umbrellas falling, roars of revving automobiles. Along with the sumptuous visuals, Playtime builds an amazing world and is well worth the experience.
Words by Luca Foggini. Pictures by Jaques Tati.