Jacques Tati's "Playtime," like "2001: A Space Odyssey" or "The Blair Witch Project" or "Russian Ark," is one of a kind, complete in itself, a species already extinct at the moment of its birth. Even Mr. Hulot, Tati's alter ego, seems to be wandering through it by accident. Instead of plot it has a cascade of incidents, instead of central characters it has a cast of hundreds, instead of being a comedy it is a wondrous act of observation. It occupies no genre and does not create a new one. It is a filmmaker showing us how his mind processes the world around him.
At the time of its making, "Playtime" (1967) was the most expensive film in French history. Tati filmed it in "Tativille," an enormous set outside Paris that reproduced an airline terminal, city streets, high rise buildings, offices and a traffic circle. It was the direct inspiration for "The Terminal," for which Stephen Spielberg built a vast set of a full-scale airline terminal.
Although Spielberg said he wanted to give Tom Hanks the time and space to develop elaborate situations like Tati serendipitously blundered through, he provided Hanks with a plot, dialogue and supporting characters. Tati made "Playtime" without a story, with dialogue (mostly in English) that is inaudible or disposable, and without a hero.
His film is about how humans wander baffled and yet hopeful through impersonal cities and sterile architecture. "Playtime" doesn't observe from anyone's particular point of view, and its center of intelligence resides not on the screen but just behind the camera lens. The most sympathetic person in the movie is a waiter who becomes a source for replacement parts. More about him later.
Tati filmed his movie in 70mm, that grand epic format that covers the largest screens available with the most detail imaginable. He shot entirely in medium-long and long shots; no closeups, no reaction shots, no over the shoulder. He shows us the big picture all of the time, and our eyes dart around it to find action in the foreground, middle distance, background and half-offscreen. It is difficult sometimes to even know what the subject of a shot is; we notice one bit of business but miss others, and the critic Noel Burch wonders if "the film has to be seen not only several times, but from several different points in the theater to be appreciated fully."
"Playtime" is Rosenbaum's favorite film, and unlike many of its critics, he doesn't believe it's about urban angst or alienation. In a lovely passage, he writes: "It directs us to look around at the world we live in (the one we keep building), then at each other, and to see how funny that relationship is and how many brilliant possibilities we still have in a shopping-mall world that perpetually suggests otherwise; to look and see that there are many possibilities and that the play between them, activated by the dance of our gaze, can become a kind of comic ballet, one that we both observe and perform..."
Consider how this works in the extended opening scene. We see a vast, sterile concourse in a modern building. In the foreground, a solicitous wife is reassuring her husband that she has packed his cigarettes and pajamas, and he wearily acknowledges her concern. We understandably conclude that this is the waiting room of a hospital; a woman goes by seeming to push a wheelchair, and a man in a white coat looks doctor-like. Nuns march past in step, their wimples bobbing up and down in unison. Only slowly do these images reveal themselves as belonging to an airline terminal.
A tour group of American women arrives down an escalator. A clerk on a stool with wheels scoots back and forth to serve both ends of his counter. Impenetrable announcements boom from the sound system. Mr. Hulot's entrance is easy to miss; while babbling tourists fill the foreground, he walks into an empty space in the middle distance, drops his umbrella, picks it up and walks off again. The bang of the umbrella directs our eye to the action. The whole sequence is alert to sounds, especially the footfalls of different kinds of shoes and the flip-flops of sandals.
Looking and listening to these strangers, we expect to see more of Mr. Hulot, and we will, but not a great deal. Tati's famous character, often wearing a raincoat and hat, usually with a long-stemmed pipe in his mouth, always with pants too short and argyle socks, became enormously popular in the director's international hits "Mr. Hulot's Holiday" (1953) and "Mon Oncle" (1958, winner of the Oscar for best foreign film).
But nearly 10 years passed before Tati found uncertain financing for the expensive "Playtime," and he wanted to move on from Hulot; to make a movie in which the characters might seem more or less equal and -- just as important -- more or less random, the people the film happens to come across.
"Mon Oncle" has an ultra-modern house as its setting, and in "Playtime," we enter a world of plate glass and steel, endless corridors, work stations, elevators, air conditioning. Hulot goes to call on a man in a modern office and is put on display in a glass waiting room, where he becomes distracted by the rude whooshing sounds the chair cushions make. He takes an elevator trip by accident. A man approaches the building guard to get a light for his cigarette and doesn't realize a glass wall separates them.
Glass walls are a challenge throughout the film; at one point, Hulot breaks a glass door and the enterprising doorman simply holds the large brass handle in midair and opens and closes an invisible door, collecting his tips all the same.
Other characters are mistaken for Hulot in the film, a double is used for him in some scenes, and Hulot encounters at least three old Army buddies, one of whom insists he visit his flat. This generates a wonderful scene; the apartment building has walls of plate-glass windows, and the residents live in full view of the street. We see four apartments at once, and in a sly visual trick, it eventually appears that a neighbor is watching Hulot's army buddy undress when she is actually watching the TV.
But to explain or even recount these moments is to miss the point. They aren't laugh-out-loud gags, but smiles or little shocks of recognition. The last long sequence in the film involves the opening night of a restaurant at which everything goes wrong, and the more it goes wrong, the more the customers are able to relax and enjoy themselves.
The sequence involves a multitude of running jokes, which simultaneously unfold at all distances from the camera; the only stable reference point is supplied by a waiter who rips his pants on the modern chairs and goes to hide behind a pillar. There he is implored by other waiters to lend them his clean towel, his untorn jacket, his shoes and his bowtie, until finally he is a complete mess, an exhibit of haberdashery mishaps.
Some characters stand out more than others. Hulot, of course. An attractive American woman. A loud American man. A short and deliberate little man. A long-suffering restaurant owner. A very drunk man. But scenes don't center on them; everyone swims with the tide. In "Mon Oncle," there is a magical scene where Hulot adjusts a window pane, and it seems to produce a bird song. In "Playtime," we are surrounded by modern architecture, but glass doors reflect the Eiffel Tower, the Church of the Sacred Heart in Montmartre and the deep blue sky. The sight of the sky inspires "oohs" and "ahs" of joy from the tourists, as if they are prisoners and a window has been opened in their cell.
"Playtime" is a peculiar, mysterious, magical film. Perhaps you should see it as a preparation for seeing it; the first time won't quite work. The best way to see it is on 70mm, but that takes some doing (although a print is currently in circulation in North America). The Criterion DVD is crisp and detailed, and includes an introduction by Terry Jones, who talks about how the commercial failure of the film bankrupted Tati (1909-1982) and cost him the ownership of his home, his business and all of his earlier films. Was Tati reckless to risk everything on such a delicate, whimsical work? Reckless for you, reckless for me, not reckless for a dreamer.
"Playtime" is now playing in 70mm and DTS sound at the Music Box, 3733 N. Southport.
Playtime is a film justly celebrated for its amazing sets. Every scene is shot in a specially constructed mock-up of a hyper-modern Paris, all flat surfaces, gleaming floors and comfortless furniture. Much of this is realised using forced perspective (to make nearby buildings seem further away and thus larger) and photographed façades standing in for the fronts of some structures (and thus offering no reflections in their mirrored panels. The cast of extras is filled out with 2D cut-outs of large photographs of people. All of this artifice contributes to the sense of a city designed for aesthetic power and ill-suited for its human inhabitants. People are reduced to little atoms in a vast network of cubicles, box-shaped apartments, glass walls, elevators, pavements and identikit walkways. Gradually, the film shows them breaking out of the patterns and behaviours prescribed by their environment, most notably in the extended “Royal Garden” sequence (which Jonathan Rosenbaum called “the most formidable mise-en-scène in the history of cinema”).
Over the course of this lengthy section of the film, the carefully planned and poised opening night of an up-market restaurant steadily devolves via breakage and collapse into a far warmer and more relaxed evening as people learn to accommodate the changes in plan and enjoy themselves. Their increasingly joyous dancing, and their refusal to sit or walk or stand where they’re supposed to sit or walk or stand represents a break from the straight lines of movement into which people are forced by architecture for the first half of the film. What starts out as a descent into chaos actually emerges as an evolution into something preferable, allowing a kind of Brownian motion of jiggling bodies and carefree crowding that confounds all of the management’s attempts to set up an environment that will keep everyone in check and conforming to social expectations.
Lee Hilliker phrases this beautifully:
As is typical of Tati, when the socially constructed physical world begins to come apart and look less omnipotent and more malleable, the boundaries between human beings also begin to waver. People who would not ordinarily interact talk with one another, as the lines between social classes, as well as between work and play, blur and temporarily disappear. Amid shattered glass and crumbling walls, the space dedicated to consumerism and class exclusion takes on a utopian glow of equality and spontaneity in shared pleasure, a metamorphosis echoed in the film’s colour palette, which has slowly and subtly expanded into brighter and sharper hues during the Royal Garden sequence.
What is extraordinary about this sequence is that you barely notice it happening. It is such a gradual change that it’s not immediately apparent that this collapse is actually a reconstruction, a reorientation of space. The increasingly busy soundtrack gives us some clues, though. In his notes for the Criterion Collection DVD of the film, Jonathan Rosenbaum stresses the importance of music in the Royal Garden:
The crucial catalyst for our appreciation of this sequence is the music, played by two successive bands and then sung by an old-fashioned chanteuse, who’s eventually joined by the customers – an element that helps us to cope creatively with Tati’s overload of invention by furnishing a rhythmic base to work from. Thanks to this music, each set of visual options has a rhythmic pattern for one’s gaze to follow while scanning the screen’s busy surface of swarming detail, through which we can join Tati in charting our own choreographies, improvising our own organisations of emphasis and direction in relation to the director’s massive ‘head arrangement’. What other movie converts work into play so pleasurably by turning the very acts of seeing and hearing into a form of dancing?
Tati’s idiosyncratic use of sound has been much commented on. Since he shoots the entire film in long shot, often with crowded long-take compositions, the sound is an important tool for orientating the spectator. It might seem as though the spectator is free to roam the frame and focus on any detail that catches the eye, and to an extent this is true (each time I see it I notice something different and miss something I thought I remembered), but the soundtrack has been carefully arranged so as to emphasise certain elements of the mise-en-scène.
Donald Kirihara has written a great article about sound in Tati’s earlier Les Vacances de M. Hulot, though much of its wisdom transfers readily across to his other films. Here’s an extended extract:
Sound plays a key role in defining the spatial relations of a narrative film. The sensitivity to space that the listener exercises during a film is fundamentally one of locating the source of a sound in the space of the scene using cues of direction and distance. This construction of an auditory space borrows from our contact with the world at large. It is of some importance to be able to locate sounds indicating, for instance, danger (Is that a siren?) or to use sounds to help us decide where to direct our visual attention (What direction is it coming from?). The concept of auditory space applied to film is handy for another reason: just as the auditory space that surrounds us standing on a street corner must be largely inferred – it is the totality of all sound events perceived from all distances and directions, seen and unseen – the auditory space that we must construct from the vibrations of a theatre loudspeaker is also the product of the listener’s inferences.
In classical film practice, location of a sound source is seldom an issue because the viewer’s construction of space remains consistent with the film’s causal chain of events. The notion of ‘sound perspective’ describes the manipulation of film sound, mainly through volume and reverberation, to correspond to shot scale. A close-up of a character speaking, for instance, will be accompanied by that character’s voice similarly centred for our attention. Noise coming from sources in the background, say, from figures conversing in the depth of the shot, will be comparatively muted and indistinct. The narrational function of such selection is obvious: the voice of the character relates information pertinent to the story without distraction from other sounds.
Typically in classical films, then, the voice is the centre of attention, but in Les Vacances [and in Play Time, too, I would argue] Tati neatly reverses this. Sound techniques in the film help to defeat our expectations of a space at the service of the narrative, thanks primarily to what may be its most obvious sonic property, the lack of a dominant voice track.
Tati thus confounds the commonly held expectation that sound should supportively accompany the image, reinforcing the presentness of objects which are actually just illusions of materiality. His objects produce noises that might not correspond to their actual distance from the camera/spectator – he mixes up the depth cues, sometimes to make sure you notice the desired parts of the frame. Take this shot for example:
The wasp’s nest of cubicles conveys an incomprehensible space, tightly ordered but difficult to navigate due to its repetitious lines and colours. Tati’s Hulot can just be seen at the outer edge of the cubicles near the top left corner of the frame, struggling to locate the contact he is there to meet. The red and green lights pick out the important cubicles, as the occupant of one telephones someone in the other, but the soundtrack also assists with the orientation by singling out the speakers in the buzz and murmur of the vast rooms ambient sounds and business chatter. The depth cues are not realistic, but they direct the eye to relevant portions of the frame and keep the spectator one step ahead of Hulot’s mistakes and misunderstandings.
In another shot, Hulot waits for his meeting. As his contact approaches from the distant depth of the composition (see the figure in the background on the righthand side of the image below), the sound once again conceals the distance between characters. The footsteps appear close, and Hulot rises to the meeting, but he has been deceived, and he has much longer to wait.
The spaces of Playtime are inimical to human beings. The film is full of hard, slippery surfaces, their discomforts accentuated by their coupling with abrasive, repetitive or incoherent noises. Chairs hiss and squeak when pressed, intercoms and PA systems deliver monotonous or unintelligible drones. So often, communication is stifled, obscured, misdirected or thwarted altogether in a series of near-misses caused by cumbersome electronic equipment, poor acoustics, mistaken identity, blocked paths, over-crowding or other confusions. The soundtrack makes this unco-operative environment more pronounced by enhancing the incongruous noises of its objects: the ultra-modern designs are supposed to harmonise perfectly with each other – this Paris has been totally made over to comprise a unified aesthetic of graphite greys, brushed steel and tarmac – but the sounds make certain things pop out of the mise-en scene and get noticed. When discussing film sound, it’s always worth citing Michel Chion, especially when he’s writing about Tati directly, in this lovely petomanal analysis:
In a film by Tati, sound insists on making its presence heard. Creatures and objects emit sounds through little openings; some matter, when rubbed against matter, produces the voice of escaping sounds. These ‘farts’ – many sounds in a Tati film sound like farts – never reveal the volume, mass, or strength of the bodies that sound them. These are never more than localised sounds, torn from the ‘orifice’ of a particular source. […] Many have criticised these sounds for being immobile, for not moving along with their sources. Precisely, these noises are, first and foremost, placed to be heard in the specific shot where they appear. They must be totally fixed. Tati doesn’t even make the slightest attempt to simulate perspective by changing the position of these sounds.
Matching these gags about sounds that don’t behave as expected, or which don’t remain faithful to their sources, are similar responses to space. Rooms, zones and indoor/outdoor distinctions are excessively segmented by glass or plastic panels, and many jokes revolve around failures to acknowledge those boundaries:
In another scene, two neighbouring apartments, their glass fronts granting little privacy (we watch the scene unfold from the street, hearing snatches of conversation from passersby and traffic noises), watch separate television broadcasts, while the composition makes them appear to be interacting:
Again, Lee Hilliker has an astute description of this scene that must take the place of my own:
Through the uniformity and repetition of the physical spaces and the inhabitants’ activities, the apartment house sequence reiterates the sense of sameness and the consequent difficulty of differentiation which have characterised Playtime to this point. The notion of television viewing adds another layer of complexity to the situation by crossing the boundary into both the street outside and the spectator’s space, as the apartments with their television-screen-like windows make multiple channels of bourgeois family life available for potential viewers. All the ‘programs’ on view offer more or less identical scenarios which are doubtless repeated, with minor variations, night after night, a characteristic typical of television programming since its inception. The available channels attract no audience in the street, though, which is not surprising since such potential viewers would, for the most part, live the same lives as those they might watch. There are spectators, however, and Tati has slyly drawn the film’s audience into the same situation as the television-gazing apartment dwellers. We vainly search the interchangeable programs for difference and variation, while somnolence soon begins to set in as a reaction to so much repetition and banality.
It is this privileged, voyeuristic perspective that lets the audience recognise the patterns and repetitions to which the city’s inhabitants seem to be oblivious. Tati’s compositions show how a different outlook can reveal hidden meanings and transform the experience of space, and this leads to what can be seen as a rather cheerful, optimistic conclusion.
The other structuring motif of the film is its panoply of graphic matches – Tati is endlessly amused by things that look like other things: the roundabout that becomes a glorious carousel, the elevator that looks like an alcove (and whose disguise ensnares Hulot like a fly-trap), the chef who comes to look like Napoleon, the nuns habits that look like flapping angel wings, or the other religious image of a priest who stands beneath the halo of a neon “O” in “DrugstOre”. As Jonathan Rosenbaum noted of his own first viewings of the film:
Playtime proposed a particularly euphoric form of re-engagement with public space, suggesting ways of looking and finding connections, comic and otherwise, between supposedly disconnected street details – not to mention connections between those details and myself.
Indeed, these graphic similarities create confusion, but by the end, after the city-dwellers have transformed the Royal Gardens into a bohemian haven and the streets into a colourful merry-go-round, they gain clarity, and the beauty of the city can at last be seen by those who have navigated its visual mazes.
This is represented by the American tourist Barbara (one of the very few named characters), who recognises the connection between the snowdrops gifted to her by Hulot and the street-lamps outside her bus. Hilliker is a little more suspicious of this final sequence, finding not transformation in the newly colourised city, but ultimate assent to its aesthetic power:
If the overly cheery and rather pasted-on transformation of the urban environment fails in its lighthearted attempt at conversion to an optimistic attitude toward the modernist city, though, it is due to the convincing weight of the grey, wrap-around monolith of the film’s first half. When this presence changes from a looming, disorientating locus of shifting boundaries and identity confusion into a balloon-filled quasi circus, it is as if a powerful human character had undergone an unmotivated last-minute metamorphosis from a quiescent but ever-present monster into a cheerful sidekick who, underneath it all, really has the hero’s best interests in mind. Not only does this seem as unlikely as a similar human about-face, but it also points up the fact that the mise-en-scène has become an all-encompassing, almost unnoticed, antagonist in the course of the film, while the very uniformity of the urban fabric, its complete lack of differentiation, has helped it slip effortlessly beneath the conscious attention of both spectators and characters.
Playtime could be a dystopian vision of a world whose modern irritations are pestilential, maddening headaches of faulty gadgets and redundant babble. But he’s too generous and genial for that – instead he shows their absurdity, and then suggests how changes in perspective can defuse their power to confound.
More to read:
- Michel Chion, “The Films of Jacques Tati.” Guernica, 2003.
- Lee Hilliker, “In the Modernist Mirror: Jacques Tati and the Parisian Landscape.” The French Review vol.76 no.2 December 2002.
- Donald Kirihara, “Sound in Les Vacances de M. Hulot.” Peter Lehman (ed.) Close Viewings: An Anthology of New Film Criticism.
- Review of the Criterion Collection DVD at DVD Talk Review.
- At Terri Meyer’s page for her Architecture and Film course at the University of Waterloo, some students have provided reviews of Playtime. Diane Skilton has a beautifully designed response to the film, as does Alana Young, but Tammy Chau’s goes the extra mile with an interactive site that lets you click on bits of Tatiworld to see relevant text and images.
- Fred Camper discusses a season of Tati films here. Includes the following lovely description: “the paradox of Playtime is that its spaces and rhythms are not only dehumanizing but also eerily beautiful. As on the rugby fields of Tati’s youth, people and objects can either synchronize successfully or not, but it’s possible to have fun either way.”
- “Jacques Tati, Choreographer of the Human (Comic) Condition” at Tales of a Cinesthete.
- Jonathan Rosenbaum compares Playtime to another of my all-time favourite films, Jia Zhang-ke’s The World. And later, he puts it side-by-side with 2001: A Space Odyssey, another film I love, and which is a frequent reference point here at Spectacular Attractions.
- Audrie Leong, “Jacques Tati’s Playtime and the outcome of urban renewal and architectural modernism.”
- Ayşegül Akçay, “Captured Ideologies In Cinematic Spaces: Jacques Tati’s Les Vacances De M. Hulot, Mon Oncle and Playtime as Case Studies.”