Jacques Tati’s 1967 film Playtime was his fourth feature and the third to star his most famous comic creation, Monsieur Hulot. The character made his debut in Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday in 1953 and returned five years later in Mon Oncle, at the end of which — having caused a minor disaster at his brother-in-law’s plastics factory by falling asleep on the job — he was sent to the provinces to work as a sales representative. Considering his clumsiness, his knack for getting himself into trouble and the fact that he almost never speaks, it’s no surprise that Playtime finds him seeking new employment back in Paris. He may not have changed, but the city has, and its steel high-rises and sleek modern embellishments sometimes threaten to overwhelm Hulot, its other inhabitants and its visitors — mostly with boredom.
Belying its title, Playtime begins at a cold, clinical gray airport (ostensibly Orly, although the film was shot on a massive outdoor set dubbed “Tativille” that the director had built in Joinville). In this cavernous space, every little noise is amplified: footsteps; the wheels of a passing cart; a janitor setting down his dustpan, only to discover that there’s nothing on the immaculate floor for him to sweep. People are scarce. A man and a woman, dressed in shades of gray themselves, attempt to carry on a hushed conversation, but other sounds keep distracting them. Before long, though, human voices become more prominent. Travelers from around the world begin to arrive, among them a group of American women on a sightseeing tour of Paris. (For added authenticity, Tati recruited the wives of American servicemen from a nearby military base to play these characters.) Upon leaving the airport, the women board a bus, and it’s only after they arrive in the city that the camera finally encounters Monsieur Hulot (Tati).
Hulot is on his way to a job interview. What he hopes to do and even what the company does are unclear, and this information is irrelevant to the film’s purposes; what matters are the look and atmosphere of the building itself. As in the airport, everything is stark and metallic, all straight lines and right angles, with enormous windows showcasing sparsely furnished rooms. Ushered into one of these rooms in order to await his interview, Hulot finds himself with little to do but examine the identical chairs. Tati discussed this scene on a 1978 episode of Ciné regards: “I believe you should view the film as a whole. It has quiet passages too, precisely to pave the way for the comic effects. These slow passages are necessary, because the fact that Hulot is bored in that waiting room — He has to have time to become bored. Or I could have him say very quickly, ‘I’m bored! I’m bored! I’m bored!’ But if you want to actually feel the boredom, that comes about by giving it time. Time is very important.”
As it soon becomes clear, Hulot isn’t the only person who’s less than thrilled by his surroundings. Barbara (Barbara Dennek), one of the American tourists, quickly discovers that Paris isn’t what she imagined. Instead of the Eiffel Tower or the Arc de Triomphe, she seems to encounter nothing but generic, faceless high-rises; the city’s unique landmarks are only glimpsed far off in the distance or reflected for a few seconds when one of the ubiquitous glass doors is opened. It’s not a problem limited to Paris either: At one point, she comes across a display of travel posters, and no matter what country, state or city each poster is advertising, the most prominent feature is the same generic, faceless high-rise. When she meets an older woman selling flowers on a street corner, she’s thrilled: “That’s really Paris!” (It’s also a rare spot of color, although the woman and the stand are both draped in gray; for that matter, so is Barbara herself.) She pauses to pose for a photograph with the florist, while other members of her tour group urge her to join them at an international trade exhibition. “Oh, come on, girls. Wait ’til you see how modern it is,” one of them says. “And they even have American stuff. Come on!” Halfway around the world, and the most exciting attraction is what they can see at home on any ordinary day.
So far, Playtime appears to be something of a misnomer. (It does, however, reflect the way that even the French language has been Americanized, as exemplified by the numerous English words seen and heard throughout the city — often to the confusion of the locals.) But gradually, almost imperceptibly, the film comes to life. Pinpointing a single moment when this begins is difficult, if not impossible; at any rate, it becomes most obvious during the nightclub sequence that takes up much of Playtime‘s second half.
After managing to become hopelessly lost before his interview can take place, Hulot bumbles his way through the trade exhibition, visits an old friend’s ultramodern apartment and eventually finds himself at the grand opening of the Royal Garden nightclub, where Barbara and her group happen to be dining. Even before he arrives, disaster seems imminent: the building is badly designed and still under construction, many of the employees are frazzled, and the kitchen is running out of food because the number of guests has far exceeded the estimate. When Hulot accidentally punctured the underground plumbing during his sister’s stuffy luncheon in Mon Oncle, he introduced chaos into a controlled environment; here, with the would-be stuffy nightclub already on the verge of bedlam, the fact that he shatters one of the main glass doors is largely symbolic. The disorder and the overcrowding, undesirable as they are to the staff, break down the barriers between people. Had everything gone according to plan, the well-to-do clientele would have had a pleasant but not extraordinary evening. What actually happens is far more memorable, a night of laughter, surprises, inventiveness, music, dancing and, above all, human warmth, miles away from the nightclub’s initial snobbery and the iciness of the film’s early scenes. After the party breaks up around dawn and Barbara gets on her bus again, she sees Paris transformed. What was once gray, dull and impersonal has become a colorful carnival — just like Playtime itself.
Tati spent years working on the film, which he began shooting in October 1964. Financial difficulties and troublesome weather caused delays, but so did the director’s perfectionism. In a 2003 interview, script supervisor Sylvette Baudrot recalled the filming of a short scene in which Hulot and an older man wait for another man to walk down a hall: “First he thought the other actor was walking too fast, and the little old man didn’t have time for a drag on his cigarette. Then he thought the little red light wasn’t the right shade of red. We redid it because of the blinking red light. We had to change the red filter on the light. That’s how fussy he was. We did it a second and then a third time to get the rhythm and color right. So it took three days to do one shot.”
No doubt this sort of fussiness caused countless headaches throughout Playtime‘s lengthy production, but artistically, if not commercially, Tati’s scrupulous attention to detail proved well worthwhile in the end. Although Hulot is the nominal protagonist — if a film with so little plot can be said to have a protagonist — he often disappears for long stretches of time. “I would like much better to direct other people than to play myself,” Tati confessed on a 1967 episode of Tempo International, then went on to explain that he preferred to hire interesting amateurs whom he found on the street instead of professional actors: “They are so natural, you see, and real characters.” In Hulot’s absence, and sometimes in his presence, the supporting cast becomes the main attraction. Everything and everyone matters in Playtime‘s meticulously constructed universe, and even the film’s technical aspects play a pivotal role.
In order to convey the massive scale of the movie’s architecture, Tati used 70 mm film. “The thing is, people thought it was pretentious to shoot in 70 mm,” he said on Ciné regards. “Maybe it is, by its very nature. But it wasn’t being used to show a cavalry charge with two thousand horses. If I’d used Super 8 to film the front of a modern building, I’d have only gotten one window. With 16 mm, I’d have gotten three windows. With 35 mm, I’d have gotten twelve windows. But with 70 mm I can show what a modern building actually looks like.” In addition to this advantage, the extra width was ideal for his already established style. He eschewed close-ups in the belief that his characters were funnier when all of their body language could be seen at once, and because, as quoted in François Truffaut’s review of Mon Oncle, “in real life we don’t stand on top of people’s noses.” Instead, the camera tends to act like a detached observer, taking in a sizable portion of a given room or area in much the same way the human eye would. (The audio often functions in a similar manner, picking up snippets of dialogue rather than following conversations from start to finish.) As a result, each frame is able to encompass and communicate a great deal, whether it’s the oppressive emptiness of the airport or the frenzy at the nightclub.
Because there’s so much going on, even in the scenes where very little seems to be happening, the film rewards multiple viewings. Watching it a second or third time makes it easier to follow the minor characters, to study the decor, to catch all of the pseudo-Hulots who keep popping up throughout the city, to ponder how various elements might fit into the overarching themes. (Is the Greek column garbage can meant to suggest that old architecture has been relegated to the trash heap? Does the forceful but good-natured American man who brings people together at the nightclub represent a more positive version of the Americanization seen elsewhere?) A familiarity with the other Hulot films also enhances the experience. There are no explicit references to his past, but his fleeting flirtation with Barbara evokes Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday, as do the sounds that the doors make as they open and close, and some of the products featured at the exhibition would fit in perfectly at the Arpels’ house in Mon Oncle. In fact, the film as a whole follows the same pattern as Madame Arpel’s luncheon: through chaos, coldness and formality give way to fun, joy and human connection.
“In Playtime, in the beginning I and the other actors follow the routes laid down by the architects. Nobody follows a curved path. They all navigate at right angles. Everyone sticks to the paths,” Tati pointed out on Ciné regards. “Then, bit by bit, the warmth, contact and friendship, and the idea of the individual that I’m trying to champion, take over. It starts with neon signs turning, then comes the dancing, with more turning, until in the end, there’s an actual merry-go-round. By then the film is completely devoid of right angles.” Watching those angles break down is both the joy and the magic of Playtime.
Script-girl: Behind the Scenes with Sylvette Baudrot. Dir. Juliette Deschamps. Les Films de Mon Oncle, 2003.
Beyond Play Time. By Stéphane Goudet. Les Films de Mon Oncle and L’Institut National de l’Audiovisuel, 2002.
Tati, Jacques. Interview. Ciné regards. Dir. André S. Labarthe. 1978.
“Tativille.” Tempo International. Dir. Dick Fontaine. Associated British Corporation, 1967.
Truffaut, François. “Mon Oncle.” The Films in My Life. Trans. Leonard Mayhew. Da Capo, 1994. 235-37.
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