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Jacques Tati's gloriously choreographed, nearly wordless comedies about confusion in the age of technology reached their creative apex with Playtime. For this monumental achievement, a nearly three-year-long, bank-breaking production, Tati again thrust the endearingly clumsy, resolutely old-fashioned Monsieur Hulot, along with a host of other lost souls, into a bafflingly modernist Paris. With every inch of its superwide frame crammed with hilarity and inventiveness, Playtime is a lasting testament to a modern age tiptoeing on the edge of oblivion. Part of the Criterion Collection.
There's never been, and never will be, another comedy like Playtime. Three years in the making, French comedy master Jacques Tati's 1967 classic was an epic, experimental undertaking of unprecedented scale: Requiring the lavish construction of three entire city blocks of ultra-modern buildings, it was the most expensive French film up to that time, financially ruined its creator, baffled many viewers and critics when it was finally released after numerous delays, and is now regarded as Tati's undisputed masterpiece. Once again, Tati plays his comedic alter ego, the hapless M. Hulot (first seen in 1953's Mr. Hulot's Holiday), seen here as a befuddled pawn on a gigantic chessboard (metaphorically speaking) of modern conformity. He's simply trying to get to an appointment, but in the film's astonishing mock-Parisian landscape of antiseptic steel, glass, and plastic, Tati's resonant theme of contemporary confusion is fully expressed through meticulous use of framing and space--so effectively, in fact, that critic Jonathan Rosenbaum (in an accompanying essay) suggests that the film's dazzling "Royal Garden" sequence "may be the most formidable example of mise-en-scène in the history of cinema." With M. Hulot taking a back-seat to the film's breathtaking accumulation of visual details, Playtime (or, if you prefer, Play Time) rewards multiple viewings, revealing something new every time in its widescreen canvas of subtle gags and delirious eccentricity. Although journalist Art Buchwald provided English dialogue for the film, Playtime bears closer kinship to silent comedy, with universal humor and a musical soundtrack that's as essential as any of the visuals. Tati (1908-1982) never recovered from the film's financial failure, but happily, he lived long enough to see Playtime receive its much-deserved critical re-appraisal. --Jeff Shannon
Stills from Playtime (Click for larger image)
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Jacques Tati is one of France's artistic treasures. He's a cinema titan. He's original, yet he tells his cinema story the old-fashioned way by using images. And sounds.
Playtime is about being caught in a world filled with technology. Ordinary people in a tech world doing what they normally like to do: dance, eat and flirt. As his lead character, Monsieur Hulot makes way through tech world filled with elevator lights and whooped cushions, the viewers feel his pain and discomfort. He's an everyman. And he is the center of Tati's vivid imagination.
This film is steep in French culure. And the culture of the modern, tech world.
Tati tells his story through sound and images, very little French language, making viewing the images as his method of storytelling. He's a comic genius at work.
In Play Time, Tati's character, M. Hulot, and a group of American tourists attempt to navigate a futuristic Paris constructed of straight lines, modernist glass and steel high-rise buildings, multi-lane roadways, and cold, artificial furnishings. In this environment, only the irrepressible nonconformity of human nature and an occasional appreciation for the good old days breathe life into an otherwise sterile urban lifestyle. Modern industrial technologies, accepted as necessary by society, are represented by Tati as obstructions to daily life and an interference to natural human interaction.
Play Time is a very challenging film. Tati avaids the use of plot and dialogue to make his points. Using a static camera, Tati fills the 70mm frame with visual gags. Critics have called this a film thet the viewer browses rather than views. Tati himself said that the film needed multiple viewings from different places in the theatre before the average viewer would comprehend all of the films levels. I found this to be the case, there is just too much to watch to make this an easy film to sit through. The best method is to pay attention to the details that you want to see and let your eyes wander the frame looking for small bits of action or comedy in the margins. Tati said that if there was a plot it dealt with the supremacy of the curve over the straight line as represented by modern architecture.
The BFI release of this film is a good one. It offers the restored version of the film taken from the 70mm negative. The picture and sound quality are excellent. Also offered are a commentary by film historian Philip Kemp which provides good information on both the production and on Tati in general. The disc provides featurettes on the folly that was Tativille, a biographical short on Tati, production notes via a video interview with Tati's script girl and the usual BFI trailers on Tati's films. This is an excellent package and is well appreciated by Tati fans.
Tati's creation does not function as a traditional narrative. Often enough different sectors of the framed image compete for the viewer's attention - there is a unique freedom available to the viewer: you can literally choose what you would like to focus upon. In this the film truly approaches the experience of a being an observer in ordinary life. And, a bit like ordinary life, you have do some of the work if you're hoping to find what you're viewing interesting. Perhaps at times you might find yourself bored - but there's room enough in the film to sustain some boredom. You can drift off into your own thoughts and return to the film as you will.
Of course the film is filled with surprising observations from Tati himself, and inimicable visual and auditory humour. There's little in the way of dialogue, but the voice of an electronic button, or the background hum in a room, or the noise of the street as the camera voyeuristically peers through a window, makes Playtime anything but a silent movie. Again, Tati offers us the opportunity to not only see the ordinary afresh, but to also hear it anew.
Like a great painting, or a great novel, or a great play, Playtime invites you to see the world from a new and different vantage. For all its intellectual and aesthetic verve, Playtime does operate in a limited emotional range. Like its predominantly grey colour palette, the film's emotions are muffled - Mr.Hulot is a little baffled, a little bewildered, yet he remains intrigued and charmed by the world - his distance from the world allows in his comedy - but it's not a comedy that channels any of the grand passions. Frustration, alienation, emptiness, a critique of modernity's soullessness, all this can be contemplated during the film, accompanied by a smile. Love and hate must wait for another day, another film. So while I agree with the many opinions that have Playtime as Tati's masterpiece, and an utterly unique film, I'm also glad there are many other kinds of masterpiece in the history of cinema.
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Mom Oncle by Tati was much better