“your film … Whatever your personality, whatever your job … you are in Playtime.”
Jacques Tati’s 1967 film Playtime may elicit muted guffaws and raised eyebrows, but belly laughs. The earlier features of the great French director and comic have their share of hilarity – Jour de Fête, Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday, Mon Oncle all contain slapstick of a strangely punctilious kind. But in Playtime, one of the defining works of 1960s cinema, something strange happens.
Tati creates a different kind of comedy – a deadpan kind that’s somewhat rarefied and intensely complex, but life-affirming. The comedy becomes diffused throughout the film, to the point at which it is not always recognisable as comedy. Tati creates a universe entirely defined by absurdism, a note that resounds throughout, sometimes obviously, but often almost subliminally. The humour doesn’t offer itself on a plate. Tati makes us look, listen, scan through the mass of information and event on the screen; we help make the comedy happen.
Born Jacques Tatischeff in 1907, and descended from Russian nobility, Tati launched himself as a stage performer in the 1930s, made his screen debut in that decade and directed his first feature, Jour de Fête, in 1949. He had his international breakthrough in Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday (1953), featuring the alter ego he later found it hard to shake off. Hulot was a gangling, spider-limbed gent, kin to Buster Keaton and Stan Laurel in his distracted elegance. There was nothing buffoonish about Hulot; by and large, he was more likely to be bemused witness to society’s folly than to cause calamities himself. It was the world around Hulot that was ostentatiously mad: Mon Oncle (1958) sees him scratching his head at the excesses of gadget-crazed lifestyle-modernism. Playtime pushed the observation of contemporary life further: here, Hulot is just one player among a huge cast, in a semi-futuristic Paris of steel-and-glass office blocks and aquarium-like “drug stores”.
To make the film, Tati built his own Paris. He and architect Eugène Roman created a mini-metropolis at Saint-Maurice, to the southeast of the capital. It was no ordinary film set: it contained two steel and concrete buildings, its own power plant, tarmacked streets and working traffic lights, plus several towering trompe l’oeil facades. Many factors contributed to the difficult two-year shoot, which began in October 1964: bad weather destroying part of the set, Tati’s perfectionism and tendency to reshoot, and financial problems that necessitated the prime minister, Georges Pompidou, intervening to rescue the production.
By the time of its release in December 1967, Playtime’s futurism had taken on a slightly archaic tinge; the 60s were a hard decade to keep up with. Tati excised some 20 minutes from the original 140-minute cut, but audiences were mystified or bored, and despite the transatlantic success of Tati’s earlier work, the film failed to find a distributor in the US. The film’s commercial failure left Tati bankrupt, and he never again undertook anything nearly so ambitious; his next film, 1971’s Trafic, exudes a slightly wounded melancholia.
Once dismissed, Playtime is today acknowledged as a radically innovative marvel. No other film uses space, architecture, and crowds quite like this. Early on, Hulot visits an office block to meet a man named Giffard; he’s ushered into a waiting room, a large, sterile glass box resonating with a sinister electronic hum. Hulot chases his prey through a maze of box-like office units, Tati’s head appearing in the far distance, somewhere amid the screen’s Mondrian geometry. Then he dashes across the street in pursuit of Giffard, or rather, his mirror image in another building; the use of reflections in glass is audaciously complex. What’s more, much of this sequence is shot from above; Tati and cameraman Jean Badal create a film minutely and comprehensively thought-out in three dimensions.
In its quiet way, Playtime expresses a satiric outrage at the antiseptic nature of modern life, but its take on urban alienation is nothing if not joyous. Tati celebrates human character (and French character in particular) as indomitable resistant to imposed order, especially if that order smacks of transatlantic-style bureaucracy. Tati prided himself on a democratic approach to comedy, and Playtime purported to hold a mirror to its entire audience: its trailer told prospective viewers that Playtime was “your film … Whatever your personality, whatever your job … you are in Playtime.”