With a healthy suspicion of technology and aversion to the so called progress of modernity Jacques Tati’s Playtime is a flawed gem. For every wonderfully staged scene there is a gag that doesn’t quite land or a moment that drags on just that bit too long. Its many virtues however make it worthwhile and as a cinematic endeavour it should be savoured for its sheer virtuosity in its staging and set design.
Such an obsessive attention to detail would cost Tati dearly as the construction of the films impressive setting, dubbed ‘Tativille’ would end up bankrupting the director and the film itself proving a huge commercial failure. On screen its quite obvious where all the money went as the world he conjures up is a visually sumptuous wonderland, immaculately constructed for his comic set pieces. Each frame is filled to the brim with incident and flourishes, allowing the audiences eye to wander freely, not bound by any narrative conventions, outside of the setting up and employing of visual gags or farcical interludes.
The loose story, as it is, concerns the intertwining tales of an American tourist group and Tati’s well known alter ego M. Hulot as they navigate through a futuristic Paris. Their various encounters within this sterile environment, where technology is prevalent and prone to causing trouble delivers a plethora of humorous asides, ranging from very broad slapstick to some more nuanced and low key material . In its satire of mankind’s dependence upon such technology and the decadence this can lead to, the film makes its points in a graceful way, its inherent vagueness lets the audience decide on just how absurd they find this world. Its sleek designs while being forward looking are still very much of their time, bringing to my mind the dystopia featured in Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451.
Quite episodic in nature, there are six segments which satirise many elements, from the identikit office spaces in a humdrum business world to the pressure cooker stress that can erupt in a busy and chic restaurant, each is a work of technical brilliance but the slow build can sometimes come across as padding. Sequences linger long after their point has been made/exhausted and it is shocking to think this was once a much longer film, the trimming from 155 minutes down to a more manageable 2 hour run time can be seen as a small mercy on Tati’s part.
There is a wonderful moment which plays upon the idea of voyeurism as we are peering into multiple apartments in a complex at the same time and while the individuals never meet, their visual lives overlap to great comedic effect. It is with these scenes that Playtime displays its great élan and cements its well earned influential stature.
The future and the onset of new ideas are seen as enemies to older traditions and to the basic interaction of humanity. The only recurring characters are the tourists and Hulot but to use the word ‘character’ is to be generous. We get no insight into them as real people, instead they exist as distant pawns for the director’s masterful manipulation and as such the film takes on a far more universal and abstract dimension.
Its clash of the new and old isn’t just in its basic story, it can be seen in the juxtaposition of older humour, the mime like antics of Hulot having to cope in this colourless world where physicality is dismissed as decidedly old fashioned against the onslaught of the ‘new’. Shorn of most dialogue the film is purely aesthetic, we marvel at the thought put into the ever escalating farce, we can swoon at the ravishing colours and visuals but outside of the technical and satirical the film doesn’t offer much more. A bit too restrained to be a laugh out loud romp, it is easy to appreciate and analyse but harder to love without caveats. However its closing sequence is a tour de force of quirky romanticism as the city blossoms with the onset of dusk, the rush hour traffic providing a tableaux of wonder and magic before night falls and the city of light more than lives up to its name. This is the Paris of dreams and is a beautiful grace note for Playtime to play out on.