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At-A-Glance Film Reviews

Playtime (1967)



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In Mr. Hulot's Holiday, writer-director-star Jacques Tati introduces his Monsieur Hulot character and sets him up in the country for an episodic series of comic mishaps. In Mon Oncle, he brings the character to the suburbs. And here in Playtime, only quaint little vestiges of natural habitat -- a potted plant or two, a tabletop full of flowers that a woman is selling on a street corner -- are left in the sterile, geometric urban world. When I saw the earlier films, I was amused but felt a little bewildered, like the real humor, the themes below the surface of the serendipitous gags, was eluding me. When I saw Playtime, everything clicked. While each film stands alone, when they are viewed together as a trilogy, they comprise a hilarious picture of how twisted and funny and weird humankind gets when it walls itself off from the natural world with the construction of walls and buildings and cars and streets and offices and elevators and everything else we need to build for ourselves to sustain the lifestyle we created when we started building walls and buildings and cars and streets and offices and elevators in the first place.

I use the word "hilarious" reluctantly. The movies are hilarious and induce laughter, Playtime perhaps most of the three, but Tati's sense of humor is more apt to inspire smiles than laughter. I don't mean that it's "funny but not that funny" -- it's just a different kind of humor than we're used to, one that's subtle and gleeful and perceptive of the quaintness of life.

Consider the visual motifs of Playtime: this futuristic world that Tati built for the film (a gigantic set dubbed "Tativille") is full of glass, steel, long corridors, and grids. The towering buildings are laid out in a grid. Cubicles in an office floor are laid out in a grid. The cars in the parking lots are laid out in grids. We get the message. Life has become compartmentalized, and amusement is derived as much by the casual acceptance of this world by its inhabitants as by M. Hulot's befuddlement. Another kind of grid sets up a particularly amusing series of visual gags: an old friend of M. Hulot's invites him into his apartment for a drink. Virtually one entire wall of the apartment is a picture window to the street, and the camera stays outside to observe the goings-on. The outrageousness of the set-up is a gag that underscores the theme of the movie: humanity is on display for our amusement. Then we cut to wider shots that include views into the adjacent apartments. The inhabitants get to watching television, but, because of the camera angle, the dividing walls are invisible behind the concrete on the outside of the building. So, as characters react to things happening on television, it appears to us that they're reacting to what's happening in the next apartment over.

The cinematography works much the same throughout the entire film, and, indeed, the other Hulot films. We never get any close-ups, just long shots and a few medium shots. The effects is exaggerated for Playtime, which was shot in 70mm and intended to be viewed on a gigantic screen, where all the details Tati fills his frames with are clear. The use of long shots distance us from the action and allow us to view it with the detached amusement we wouldn't get if the camera got us in closer. After all, we live this lifestyle too, most of us, and the humor of it all can't really hit us unless we can back off and get a good look at how silly it all is.

I also noticed an unusual pattern with the editing. The sets are largely constructed of planes and right-angles and grids, as I say. The camera tends to view the action at odd angles, though, probably so that we can better appreciate the geometry. If we look at a cube, for example, we can better appreciate it if we look at it cock-eyed, so that we can see three of its faces simultaneously. But often when there is a cut, the film will cut to another shot of the same scene that's at right-angles to the original view. So we'll see one particular bit of action, then cut, and suddenly we're viewing the same subject roughly 90 degrees to the left, or to the right. The changed perspective brings different details to the foreground, and pushes others into the background. Normally, this cutting style is only done with close-ups -- a film might cut back and forth between two sides of a conversation between two characters, for example, looking first left at one face, then right at the other. But it's not done with medium- and long-shots much. The effect here reinforces the angular feel of this comically futuristic world.

Because of all the details here, how busy most of the shots are, it takes more than one viewing -- ideally on as big a screen as possible -- to pick up on all the film's curiosities. And you have to be paying attention to catch all the gags, too, because they're usually not artificially drawn to our attention. For example, a man boards a bus with a floor lamp. He has some trouble getting it on, but eventually he does, and he stands the lamp in the aisle. Another man boards the bus, stands in the aisle, and grabs hold of it, mistaking it for one of the poles bolted in place to help patrons keep their balance. The move is so casual and natural -- and just one element in a busy long shot -- that it's easy to miss the joke.

These M. Hulot films have been compared to silent comedies, and Tati himself has been compared to Chaplin. Certainly there are similarities, but Tati is one of a kind, and the films are highly dependent on sound for their comic effect. In Playtime, humor is derived from the sounds cushy chairs make when people sit in them, a suitcase tag twirling in the breeze, the hum of a neon sign, and the tapping of shoes against hard floors as people walk down long, long, empty corridors. People do speak, but their words function more like sound effects than dialogue, and that, too, is funny. I know -- doesn't sound like anything that could possibly be funny, right? But somehow it is.

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