PLAYTIME directed by Jacques Tati (France, 1967)

With all the plate glass windows in this movie it’s only a matter of time before someone mistakes one for an open doorway. It’s a gag waiting to happen but Jacques Tati is more interested in taunting the audience and playing with their expectations than giving them the payoff too quickly.

He also does this by having other actors adopt the Monsieur Hulot look of half mast trousers, suede shoes, Argyle socks, beige mac, trilby hat , pipe and umbrella. This leads to several instances of mistaken identity while the real Hulot is confined to something akin to a cameo role.

This reflects the fact that Tati was feeling boxed in by the success of his popular creation. Rather than rest on his laurels, he wanted his comedy to be more challenging.

He therefore dispenses with a predictable storyline in favour of a movie where the theme of  modernity is in lieu of any actual plot. As in Mon Oncle, sophisticated technology is shown as making relatively simple tasks more complicated and only serve to create more barriers to meaningful communication.

The result of  Tati’s adoption of a more experimental approach in Playtime is a movie that was posthumously hailed as a masterpiece but all but bankrupted him during his lifetime. The paying public failed to be sufficiently impressed by the elaborate sets, which came to be known as ‘Tativille’, or the meticulously choreographed scenes. They came to the cinema to be entertained and left feeling cheated.

Tati as Hulot shares screen time with a pack of American tourists who comment on the “teeny cars” and marvel at the eccentric fashions. One tries unsuccessfully to photograph a woman selling flowers as an image of the ‘real France’ while the more familiar sights of Paris like the Eiffel Tower and The Sacré Coeur are only seen as reflections in the glass.

Critics lapped up these knowing references and salivated over the self conscious irony but I think audiences were right to be more irritated than amused.

The road to nowhere.

Yet for all its obvious cleverness and sophistication, I find Playtime short on real laughs and lacking in humanity. While Tati recognises the alienating experience of living in modern cities, he never bothers depict its soul destroying effects. Beyond the clever observational humour there is little that made me feel connected with any the characters .

Roger Ebert described Playtime as a film “about how humans wander baffled yet hopeful through impersonal cities and sterile architecture” but in cinematic terms all this wandering serves no obvious purpose. The strong implication of these circle games is that modernity traps us into deadening routines but, like the vehicles stuck on a roundabout near the end of the movie, everything appears to stuck in a repetitive loop with no-one being sure what exit road to take.

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