Director: Jacques Tati
Production: Specta Films, Eastmancolor, 70mm, stereophonic sound; running time: originally 155 minutes,versions for United States release run about 108 minutes or 93 minutes. Released 1967, France. Re-released 1972 in the United States in 35mm version. Filmed on specially constructed sets just outside Paris.
Producer: René Silvera; screenplay: Jacques Tati and Jacques Lagrange; photography: Jean Badal and Andreas Winding; editor: Gérald Pollicand; production designer: Eugene Roman; music: Francis Lemarque; African themes: James Campbell; artistic collaboration: Jacques Lagrange; English dialogue: Art Buchwald.
Cast: Jacques Tati (M. Hulot); Barbara Dennek (Young tourist); Jacqueline Lecomte (Her friend); Valérie Camille (M. Luce's secretary); France Romilly (Woman selling eyeglasses); France Delahalle (Shopper in department store); Laure Paillette and Colette Proust (Two women at the lamp); Erika Dentzler (Mme. Giffard); Yvette Ducreux (Hat check girl); Rita Maiden (Mr. Schultz's companion); Nicole Ray (Singer); Jack Gauthier (The guide); Henri Picolli (An important gentleman); Léon Doyen (Doorman); Billy Kearns (M. Schultz).
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Jacques Tati's Playtime is perhaps the only epic achievement of the modernist cinema, a film that not only accomplishes the standard modernist goals of breaking away from closed classical narration and discovering a new, open form of story-telling, but also uses that form to produce an image of an entire society. After building a solid international audience through the 1950s with his comedies Jour de fête, Mr. Hulot's Holiday, and Mon oncle, Tati spent ten years on the planning and execution of what was to be his masterpiece, selling the rights to all his old films to raise the money he needed to construct the immense glass and steel set—nicknamed "Tativille"—that was his vision of modern Paris. The film—two hours and 35 minutes long, in 70mm and stereophonic sound—opened in France in 1967, and was an instant failure. It was quickly reduced, under Tati's supervision, to a 108-minute version, and further reduced, to 93 minutes and 35 monaural, when it was released in the United States in 1972. Even in its truncated form, it remains a film of tremendous scope, density, and inventiveness.
Playtime is what its title suggests—an idyll for the audience, in which Tati asks us to relax and enjoy ourselves in the open space his film creates, a space cleared of the plot-line tyranny of "what happens next?," of enforced audience identification with star performers, and of the rhetorical tricks of mise-en-scène and montage meant to keep the audience in the grip of pre-ordained emotions. Tati leaves us free to invent our own movie from the multitude of material he offers.
One of the ways in which Tati creates the free space of Playtime is by completely disregarding conventional notions of comic timing and cutting. There is no emphasis in the montage to tell us when to laugh, no separation in the mise-en-scène of the gag from the world around it. Instead of using his camera to break down a comic situation—to analyze it into individual shots and isolated movement—he uses deep-focus images to preserve the physical wholeness of the event and long takes to preserve its temporal integrity. Other gags and bits of business are placed in the foreground and background; small patterns, of gestures echoed and shapes reduplicated, ripple across the surface of the image. We can't look at Playtime as we look at an ordinary film, which is to say, passively, through the eyes of the director. We have to roam the image—search it, work it, play with it.
With its universe of Mies van der Rohe boxes, Playtime is often described as a satire on the horrors of modern architecture. But the glass and steel of Playtime is also a metaphor for all rigid structures, from the sterile environments that divide city dwellers to the inflexible patterns of thought that divide and compartmentalize experience, separating comedy from drama, work from play. The architecture of Playtime is also an image for the rhetorical structures of classical filmmaking: the hard, straight lines are the lines of plot, and the plate glass windows are the shots that divide the world into digested, inert fragments. At one point in Playtime, M. Hulot stands on a balcony looking down on a network of office cubicles, seeing and hearing a beehive of human activity. As an escalator slowly carries him to the ground floor, the camera maintains his point of view, and the change in perspective gradually eclipses the human figures and turns the sound to silence. It is one of the most profound images of death ever seen in a film, yet it is a death caused by nothing more than a change in camera placement. Tati's implication is that life can be restored to the empty urban desert simply by putting the camera in the right position, by finding the philosophical overview that integrates all of life's contradictory emotions, events, and movements into a seamless whole. His film is proof that such a point of view is possible.
Playtime ★★★ 1967
Occasionnally enterprising comedy in which the bemused Frenchman Hulot tries in vain to maintain an appointment in an urban landscape of glass and steel. The theme of cold, unfeeling civilization is hardly unique, but the film is nonetheless enjoyable. The third in the Hulot trilogy, preceded by “Mr. Hulot's Holiday” and “Mon Oncle.” In French with English subtitles. 108m/C VHS, DVD . FR Jacques Tati, Barbara Dennek, Jacqueline Lecomte, Jack Gautier; D: Jacques Tati.