Certain cinematic experiences pander to repeated sittings. Eventually maturity brings with it enlightenment and the secret passages that spark the conscious through sheer luminosity. Jacques Tati’s observation satire Playtime (1967) is one such événement and one can both envy and pity a first time viewer as they take their seat and prepare for the unexpected. To coincide with the BFI Southbank’s Tati retrospective (continuing throughout November) we can all now revisit, or in many cases awaken from the cinematic slumber that is not having seen Playtime thanks to Park Circus who have brought Tati’s masterpiece back to life in a stunning 4K restoration.
Shot in 70mm on sets which were purpose built outside of Paris, Tati constructed an entire world, complete with an airline terminal, city streets, high rise buildings and traffic circles. It was labelled Tativille by it’s creator and at the time it was the most expensive French film ever made. Sadly it was also Tati’s only commercial failure – leaving the director in a mountain of debt. To try and conjure simplistic notions about what Playtime is about deems to lessen the film’s power and effect. Once again Tati reprises the role of Monsieur Hulot, an iconic symbol of parts that become whole when seen: the hat, the pipe and of course the half mast trousers. His gait, that if anything resembles a shy but inquisitive giraffe has taken him to an artifice of at once a lost and discovered modern Paris of both spiteful dreams and elegiac sorrow.
Made in 1967, Playtime seems to anticipate so much about late 20th living, from mass cubicles for worker drones seeking to move capitalism forward, to the beginnings of the tourist class and the consumerist orgy that will overcome a revolution of the mind and body. Hulot is in Paris for a job interview and gets lost wandering through a modernist building that hums to the melody of a true cathedral of capitalism. Juxtaposed against hulot’s battle against endless corridors, sinking chairs, sliding doors and misleading reflections is a young American female tourist. Gilles Deleuze has stated that in Playtime Tati “spreads Mr. Hulots everywhere, forms and breaks up groups, joins and separates characters, in a kind of modern ballet.” From work to play, Hulot discovers the Royal Garden, a newly opened restaurant and slowly we watch as citizens escape their patterns and behaviours prescribed by their environment, a sequence which Jonathan Rosenbaum has called “the most formidable mise-en-scène in the history of cinema”.
Playtime becomes a ballet of sound and image, with Tati famously using background dialogue as white noise to counterpoint what is before us. A “ballet” Noël Burch would famously proclaim “not only begs for multiple viewings, but demands to be seen from several different seats in the auditorium.” Playtime attacks the good taste of understanding by making you understand the importance of both absence and presence that coexists in a modern shared public space and a gradually disappearing private space. Tati’s magnum opus seems unlike anything before or after, it’s a true original and it was left to François Truffaut to define it as “a film that comes from another planet, where they make films differently”. Unfortunately we still haven’t found that planet but while the search goes on we can revisit Tativille and marvel in wonderment like a child at the refracted brilliance of a true artist.
D.W. Mault | @D_W_Mault