By Jeffrey M. Anderson
By the time he came to make his fourth feature, filmmaker Jacques Tati had tired of his signature character, the bumbling Mr. Hulot. Hulot had been the star of "Jour de Fete" (1948), "Mr. Hulot's Holiday" (1953) and "Mon Oncle" (1958). All three were hits; the latter even won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language film. Hulot was in demand.
But Tati became increasingly fascinated with man's place in the world. "Mon Oncle," for example, was filled with ironic images of man trying to live comfortably among his many bizarre machines and his attempts at order in a chaotic world. For that film Tati built a unique, comical mechanized house that very nearly stole the show.
When it came time to make his fourth film, "Playtime," Tati knew two things. He didn't want Hulot to be the main character, and he wanted to build something a little bigger than just a house.
Tati spent years and an enormous amount of money building "Tativille," a huge glass-and-steel movie set comprising a modern-day airport, office building and restaurant. It was as inhuman as possible, clashing in every imaginable way with human nature.
With this blue-gray set and its endless right angles bulldozing through the frame, Tati filled up his movie with a group of gaggling American tourists, the loping Hulot and a host of other bizarre characters.
The film begins as the tourists arrive via the airport, board a bus and head for Paris. Meanwhile Hulot enters an office building, presumably with some kind of appointment or job interview. But the building's unwieldy design keeps him from ever finding his contact. Hulot's misadventures inadvertently guide him to a department store, where the American tourists are ogling the latest household gizmos (silent doorframes, vacuum cleaners with headlights, etc.). Hulot and a cute American girl (Barbara Dennek) eye each other and the whole cast winds up dining at a new restaurant, the Royal Garden, which still has a few bugs to work out of its system.
Using his giant, rich 70mm frame, Tati structures every scene wide open and very often leaves the camera still. He sometimes allows several running jokes to happen all at once in the foreground and background. As controlled as it is, the film also has a chaotic feel, unpredictable, like life.
Nearly every joke has to do with the clash between man and modern living, and there are hundreds. In one scene, Hulot meets up with a friend and visits his home, which is almost entirely visible from the street. For one moment, we see all four units at the same time, and all the occupants sit and watch television at the same moment; they look like they're staring at each other, and we're staring at them.
The movie's most oft-quoted joke is the reflections of Paris landmarks in the glass windows of Tati's monstrous city. Tourists shuttle from building to building, and only our cute American girl notices the "real" Paris, but even then, only in reflection.
Only in the restaurant scene do things finally fall apart and become more human. Another tourist, a loudmouth American (Billy Kearns), encourages people to whoop it up. The heat gets intolerable and people begin to remove their coats and ties. Drunken riff-raff and beatniks wander in off the street. The party continues until dawn, when the revelers stagger out into the street. People get in their cars, attempt to drive through the roundabout, and damned if the whole scene doesn't resemble a circus!
It's a miraculous ending, one that leaves you smiling and feeling good about the way we humans have of demolishing order wherever we go.
"Playtime" opened at an awkward time in Paris, just as all kinds of social revolutions were taking place and it was viewed as an old-fashioned relic. It failed to make back its enormous price tag, and Tati spent nearly the rest of his life trying to get back in the black. He only made two more films, both low-budget made-for-TV affairs, "Traffic" (1970) and "Parade" (1974).
We can now establish "Playtime" as a genuine cinematic masterpiece, and one that hasn't aged a bit. San Francisco's Castro Theater opens the film July 16 for a week's run in a glorious new 70mm print with DTS sound.
"Playtime" is also available on a DVD from the Criterion Collection, which has been the subject of some debate. Some of the printings were mastered in the wrong aspect ratio, which cuts off a hint of the image at the sides. Moreover, it was mastered from only a 35mm print instead of the original 70mm. Still, it looks quite good and fairly clean. The original pressing has since gone out of print and I suspect a newer version might be made available sometime soon. The disc includes an introduction by Monty Python's Terry Jones and a bonus Tati short film, "Cours du Soir," made the same year.
It should be noted that while the DVD comes with optional English subtitles, the theatrical release does not. Half of the film is in English, and so they're really not necessary. Tati makes the equivalent of silent films with everything presented in a physical, visual manner. And if you're an American viewer that doesn't understand the French dialogue, it only increases the feel of being on vacation in Paris.
**** out of ****
(126m | NR)