Director: Jacques Tati
Playtime is as unique a movie as I have ever seen. It is a film that defies description. As Roger Ebert says, “[It] is one of a kind, complete in itself, a species already extinct at the moment of its birth.” It was directed by Jacques Tati, hardly well-known today. He is the direct predecessor of Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd. Tati’s alter ego, M. Hulot, is very similar to those comedy stars of the silent era.
Playtime essentially has no plot. Rather, it has a series of themes and incidents. M. Hulot is a character in it, at least on the periphery. He has traveled to Paris (an ultra-modernized Paris completely of Tati’s imagination) for some sort of business meeting. What type of meeting it is is rather unclear, and totally irrelevant. Hulot is just one of many recurring characters in the film. We are not supposed to know much about them. They are just part of the landscape that Tati paints.
The comedy that Tati employs throughout the film is far from the physical comedy of the aforementioned filmmakers. The film is full of sight gags, many of which are readily apparent. At one point, an American tourist wanders in a building and looks at a travel poster advertising London. In the picture we see a large, rectangular building with a London-ish double-decker bus in front. She then walks outside and sees the exact same scene, a large, rectangular building (identical to the one in the building) and a bus (this time a green Paris-ish bus) in front. At a restaurant, a glass door breaks. The doorman quickly picks up the handle and pretends to open the door for the customers, even takes tips from them. Toward the end of the movie, a number of cars travel around a traffic circle while carnival music plays. All the cars stop. After a man places a coin in a parking meter, all the cars start moving again.
I really enjoyed this film, though it isn’t easily accessible. It is pure cinema, to use Hitchcock’s phrase. That is, it relies solely on images to tell the story, or in this case, stories. There is almost no dialog. What dialog there is is completely superfluous. Someone compared it to 2001, though Playtime has actually less dialog than that. Most of the scenes are shot from a distance. There are no close-ups, and very few medium shots. You are able to see far too much in each scene. This technique requires you to be observant, as we are not told what to look at. Many critics have noted that you need to watch this film several times in order to contemplate all there is to contemplate.
One of the main themes is the affect that modern technology has on man, vice-versa. I was reminded of the writings of Neil Postman, who spoke often of how technology changes the way we view the world. In Playtime, technology, specifically architecture, determines much about how the characters act. It is a Huxleyan future, one where people are lulled into ambivalence.
There are many aspects of this film that cause you to think. There are also many aspects that cause you to smile. Often, the same part of the film accomplishes both. That is one mark of a great film, one that entertains while it enlightens. If you are willing to give it your time, it can reward you greatly.