Going Around In Circles with Jacques Tati’s ‘Playtime’

By  · Published on March 6th, 2014

Looking for any excuse, Landon Palmer and Scott Beggs are using the 2012 Sight & Sound poll results as a reason to take different angles on the best movies of all time. Every week, they’ll discuss another entry in the list, dissecting old favorites from odd angles, discovering movies they haven’t seen before and asking you to join in on the conversation. Of course it helps if you’ve seen the movie because there will be plenty of spoilers.

This week, they get lost in the whirling modern wonder of Jacques Tati’s fictional Paris to revel in whimsy, caprice and noisy angst.

In the #43 (tied) movie on the list, the doofy Mr. Hulot (Tati) bumbles around the labyrinthine steel and concrete of a tech-addled city while tourists bounce around station to station and the background eventually comes to the foreground. Honestly, writing a plot synopsis for Playtime is a self-defeating purpose.

But why is it one of the best movies of all time?

Scott: So Playtime is a non-movie for the structure that it subverts – pushing dialogue greatly to the background, using establishing shot distances to let its entire non-story play out, refusing a main hero or any firm goal or character arc. However, I’m not sure that the result is anything more than a delightful distraction. I’m afraid you’ll have to sell me on what I missed after two viewings.

Landon: I see it as a movie about not-so-delightful distractions. It’s an important antecedent to (and much quieter version of) Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, using sight gags and scenarios to deliver a story about bureaucracy, excess, and consumerism creating a world of confusion, missed connection, dislocation, and passive conformity. And it’s a movie with the most stressful restaurant scene in recent memory.

Scott: I wasn’t quite as stressed out as you were. Even with the trappings of the “tech age” as viewed through the 60s lens (and this reminded me more of the Tex Avery “World of Tomorrow” cartoons than anything else), everything still had a flow to it.

At the very least, there’s a kind of paradoxical nature to that statement – if it’s really the statement Tati was attempting to make. Namely, creating beautiful sets and then lightly mocking “tourist” characters for marveling at their beauty.

Landon: That’s a good point. If it’s supposed to be about the trappings of modern living, then it’s a criticism that makes life look like a ballet. The chaos is so carefully and impeccably choreographed under these complicated wide shots. Though I will admit, for some reason I was hugely stressed out the first time I saw this film that Mr. Hulot wasn’t making his meeting.

Scott: Oh, I was, too. But it was because of how draggy sequences like that (or the flower shop photo) felt. It all felt like a calmer Vaudeville. Pat-stick or Golf Clap-stick (since I can’t figure out a good pun for light slapstick.) My point: all hail Buster Keaton.

Landon: Jacques-stick.

Scott: Bullseye.

Although – to your point about the restaurant, I was overjoyed to see it all devolve into something resembling the lively, genuine chaos of European cafe/restaurant culture. The random guitar player, a pianist from the crowd, unplanned and unpretentious revelry. It turned an experimental Mr. Magoo act into something powerfully climactic.

Landon: Well, as someone who has actually been an American tourist in Paris, I defer to you to give advice on which identical building is the best.

Scott: That was the strange part of it all (if there’s truly that message beneath all the non-story). Paris simply doesn’t look like that, and it was most likely exaggeration in service of a cautionary tale, but there’s something disingenuous in the discombobulation of society in the face of technology. Are you really commenting on the world if you have to manufacture your own in order to make the comment?

Again, I don’t really know if that’s the statement Tati is trying to make – or if there’s a statement at all, really.

Landon: Perhaps Tati is saying, through hyperbole, that we’re all in a sense tourists because places are losing their specificity. One of my favorite moments is early on in what I assume is a department store where a salesman shows a group of tourists a vacuum cleaner with a light on it, with “Paris” used as a brand name in the background.

Then moments later a tourist goes outside to take a picture of a lady selling flowers and comments “Oh, that’s real Paris” before taking a picture (flowers also being something “real,” not something mass produced). Maybe the remnants of culture are still there for Tati, and they’re easier to recognize as we get used to seeing variations on the same thing everywhere (brand names one can recognize worldwide, for instance).

Scott: I always smile when I buy a Coke here in Germany that has “Freunde” printed on the can.

I see the deeper point, and I can appreciate the complication of it. It may be non-descript, may be chaotic, but Tati also finds a lot of joy in this world. My favorite parts of the film came from finding art in the everyday. The apartment window movers with the band striking up outside to transform work into a dance; the neon lights seeming to flash in syncopation with a radio tune; a highly choreographed naturalism in life.

Landon: That’s what was really compelling this time around – the artistry of Tati’s Paris. Playtime is a film of immense and ambitious artistry, but it was this time that I found myself actually admiring parts of the world Tati created. After we left the grey walls of the buildings during daytime and their constant, deadening hum, I was struck by the beauty of all the lights in a building turning on successively upward.

Scott: I can’t help thinking I would have liked it more if everything before the Restaurant Scene had been truncated. The TV gag inside the cubicle apartments was genius, and there were a few other moments, but most of the earlier stuff felt like it was strung together by filler scenes from a John Landis spoof.

Landon: That TV gag felt almost Hitchcockian. Rear Window as imagined by Harold Lloyd.

Scott: Yes! Watching the woman tweak her husband’s nose followed by people in a different room (really, different universe) reacting in sync with something on TV was the first segment to really catch my attention. Everything before it had the bigthink idea we’ve been talking about it, but that felt like the first time it had been distilled into something magical.

Like a holiday card from David Cronenberg.

Landon: For me the problem of enjoying the film throughout has always been its pacing. Sometimes the gradual procession of events works perfectly (that long walk down the hallway early on, for example), but other times the comic tension seems to get broken when it shouldn’t or doesn’t have to be. So in terms of pure viewership, I remember the movie most often through the gags that struck me most.

But I will say this about watching Playtime in the context of this list: after seeing so many serious art films about the alienation of modern life (L’Avventura, La Dolce Vita), a comedy made about that same subject seems even more of a genius move.

Scott: True. As an updated Modern Times, it’s a lot of (slight) fun with some interesting experimentation. I simply wish I could let Tati know that the oyster shop from The 400 Blows still exists on the same corner in Paris. I think he might have taken heart from that.

Landon: Haha.

Scott: On the other hand, I’ve seen up close the stress people feel when their city is taken over by tourists. Olympia is basically a hub for cruise ships, Venice has been decimated, and they certainly aren’t alone. Famous old cities boiled down to their landmarks. Or their famous collapsing jazz restaurants.

Landon: Perhaps that’s what’s really missing from its satire that makes it feel disingenuous: there’s no sense of protest around the world as is. Mr. Hulot operates like a transplant from pre-modern life, a tourist dismayed at what everyone else thinks is normal. But as is the tone of this film, he’s an observer. Until the restaurant scene, most people around him are able to function remarkably well and efficiently in this world except Mr. Hulot.

Scott: Mr. Magoo versus the Elevator.

Landon: Mr. Magoo versus the Silent Slamming Door.

Scott: That’s why I got more invested by imagining all of it taking place in a sci-fi world where people don’t understand how to interact with objects or other people. So, you know, a farce.

Landon: Yes, and besides, any point that it makes about modern living is made within its first few setpieces, so watching the remarkable choreography of its physical comedy and sight gags really is the draw here.

Scott: I loved being tricked that way. Seeing something familiar (a goofy comedy) wearing completely different attire. What you said about a comic take on modern alienation fits in here as well.

Landon: Also, the film’s use of sound is remarkable – the slamming door bit, that man’s trek down the hallways early on, the noise of the leather chairs, the way that dialogue becomes part of background noise. I don’t know how many other comedies are so acutely attentive to the work of sound in making humor and meaning. It’s a film that uses the tools of silent cinema to depict an age in which many noises are happening everywhere at once.

Scott: Tati certainly used older storytelling tools (specifically silent film trappings) to sell a conversation about beepbooping computers. But I still don’t understand why Tativille isn’t a major theme park. It’s gotta be better than EuroDisney.

Landon: Seriously, it would pay for itself by all the vacuums they sell…That shot where Hulot goes down the escalator and you see all the pre-facto cubicles is just stunning.

The Coens apparently said when they were working on The Hudsucker Proxy that they knew they were in trouble (financially) when they were building such huge sets for a comedy because they were breaking an unstated rule of comedies. But between this, Playtime and Modern Times, huge sets and grand visions can be quite the comic staple.

That said, Playtime was a massive financial failure.

Scott: If this was a quiet tired against modernity, Tati made modernity look gorgeous. And expensive.

So that’s the ultimate question: would you live in Tativille?

Landon: Before I answer that, your point about Tativille is right on in terms of it having been a real possibility. Kent Jones says in a Criterion essay that he wanted to make a live performance space for spectators:

“According to Tati biographer David Bellos, the contract for ‘Film Tati No. 4’ was signed in 1959 with the provisional title Recréation. The intention was to mix film with live performance and create a space in which paying customers were not mere spectators but genuine participants. Like many artists before and after him (Abel Gance dreamt of stadium-sized audiences watching the stories of the world’s religious leaders on massive screens; Francis Ford Coppola hoped to project film on glass screens in specially constructed theaters), Tati wanted to break the formal bonds of his art form and create a new, totalizing form of spectacle.”

And yes, I would totally go to there. But live? I’d like to be an annoying tourist in the “real” Paris first.


Scott: If I couldn’t get a work visa for Metropolis, or Murnau-ville, I’d definitely apply to push buttons in Playtime.

Landon: All these places seem to get destroyed at some point. Modernity should give everyone free hard hats.

And a vacuum cleaner with a light on it to help clean up the mess.

Next Time: Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Gertrud

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