29 Apr 2017

Fifty greatest films: Playtime

From Widescreen, 2:40 pm on 29 April 2017

Tati’s modern masterpiece can now be seen at its very best, but newcomers might want to start with his earlier films, says Dan Slevin.

Tati anticipated offices full of cubicles (and he did not appear to think this was much of a good thing).

Tati anticipated offices full of cubicles (and he did not appear to think this was much of a good thing). Photo: Criterion

#43= Playtime (1967)

The seventh entry in this list arrives in week 17 of the year. If I don’t get a move on, Sight & Sound will update the list and I’ll have to start all over again!

Jacques Tati’s Playtime (sometimes billed as Play Time) was the master comedian’s fourth feature and is now regarded as his masterpiece. Unfortunately, the combination of his extraordinary ambition and box office failure meant that the film bankrupted him. He lost his home and the copyrights to his earlier films. He was 60 years old.

Since then, Playtime has had its reputation restored somewhat with glorious home video restorations showing off Tati’s precise compositions and the sumptuous 70mm photography. However, if you are new to Tati, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend Playtime as your way in. It’s a distillation of the great man’s talent and obsessions but may prove too oblique or obscure for the casual viewer.

It’s also an extremely conservative film, as only the French seem to be able to make. Tati’s M. Hulot character is trapped in an alienating modern Paris along with a bus load of female American tourists. Tourist icons like the Eiffel Tower or the Arc de Triomphe are seen only in window reflections as citizens and visitors alike are focused on shopping or partying.

Modern architecture all looks the same, jet travel only takes you to foreign places so you can stay in identical hotels, business is computerised and the only representative of traditional French culture is a flower seller who can’t sell flowers because she’s too busy having her photo taken by tourists.

There’s no plot to speak of, just some physical set-pieces with almost the entire second half of the film taken up with a sequence around the opening of a new restaurant and nightclub – the Royal Garden. The opening seems like a disaster – the building is falling apart, waiters are getting drunk, the food is either running out or served multiple times – but the party is a roaring success with guests oblivious to the chaos all around them.

It’s not a silent film but what small amount of dialogue there is more like soundscape or sound design. It may as well be a silent film but colourful, playful and unsentimental one.

The alienation of the modern city is a recurring theme.

The alienation of the modern city is a recurring theme. Photo: Criterion

Tati started out in show business as a vaudeville comedian and mime artist in the years before WWII. His first project as a director (L’École des facteurs) was inherited from René Clément and, even though successful, doesn’t feel like a Tati film. His second, Jour de fête from 1947, most definitely does. The story of a rural postman obsessed with modern delivery techniques learnt from as magazine article it introduced the world to a gifted physical comedian and a deadpan comic director in the tradition of the great Buster Keaton.

Tati on the set of Playtime in his M. Hulot costume.

Tati on the set of Playtime in his M. Hulot costume. Photo: Criterion

By the time, he set out to make Playtime, he was a national and international treasure and his ambitions for the film grew to match. He spent 17 million francs and three years building a studio backlot facsimile of modern Paris that became known as Tativille. He chose to shoot on 70mm film because he wanted the stereo soundtrack the format offered him. By the time shooting was completed Tati was in debt to almost everyone and the French tax department was the creditor that bankrupted him.

Playtime is a beautiful film, unlike anything else in European cinema, but I recommend you warm up to Tati with Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot and Mon Oncle first. Then you can relax and let it work its magic on you.

The 2014 restoration of Playtime can be found on a DVD boxed set of the master’s work from Madman (although the Blu-ray set appears to be out of stock. An HD version of the film can be rented on iTunes and the Blu-ray can be rented from Fatso.

The Sight & Sound Top 50 project is intended to encourage more attention to the greatest films of the past – in the same way we still read old books and listen to old music we should be appreciating old movies.

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