Classic Movie Review: Playtime (1967)

Title: Playtime
Release Date: December 16, 1967
Director: Jacques Tati
Production Company: Specta Films | Jolly Film

I’ve never seen a movie like Jacques Tati’s Playtime and I’m not sure another movie like it exists.  There’s no story to the movie so to speak, just more or less various characters moving through a modernist landscape over the period of 24 hours.  It is a color film, and yet most everything on screen is gray, silver, powder blue, or black so as to appear to be a black & white film.  It’s a “talkie” but the dialogue seems incidental and secondary to the sound effects of footsteps, neon lights, and the constant flow of motor vehicles through the city.  The world is a series of boxes, characters framed by windows, mirrors, cubicles, and cars.  It’s a satire, and yet the most gentle of satires as Tati also feels focused on celebrating the patterns of everyday life.

There are two characters who can be said to have the main storylines.  One is Monsieur Hulot (Tati’s recurring “everyman” character) who bumbles through the story seeking a job interview and repeatedly meeting men he used to know from the army.  The other is the American tourist Barbara (Barbara Dennek), part of a larger tour group of mostly older American women, who wishes to find the historic Paris among the modern towers, but only sees the city’s famed landmarks reflected in glass.

Tati films everything in a long takes and from wide angles (never using a close-up) and there’s a lot going on with characters moving about in the background and foreground. The film takes place in six different settings. First, is the airport when Barbara’s tour group arrives.  Next, is an office building where Hulot gets lost in the maze of cubicles.  Hulot and the American tourists both end up at a trade show where there are several gags about the modern gadgets being displayed.  Hulot is invited for drinks at a friend’s place at a modern apartment building, and everything is shown from outside, with the occupants of the building framed by wide, plate-glass windows.  Hulot’s company and their neighbors appear to be watching one another but they are each, in fact, just watching tv.

The longest and funniest segment is set a restaurant called the Royal Garden, where Hulot, Barbara, and many other characters we’ve seen throughout the movie end up for dinner.  Workers are putting the final touches on the restaurant before it opens to diners for the first time, and pretty much everything in the restaurant falls apart over the course of the evening. Contrary to expectations, the diners actually enjoy themselves more as the rigid structure of French dining falls apart. A businessman, initially portrayed as an Ugly American, forms a club of people who have had their clothing damaged by the modern furniture and people begin talking, dancing, and even playing instruments!

The conclusion of the film brings together Hulot and Barbara as he wishes to get he a gift to remember her trip to Paris. Her bus returns to the airport in the constant stream of traffic which is now cheerful and colorful, like a parade or a carnival ride, as cars, trucks, and buses circle a rotary.

As I was watching this movie, I assumed Tati filmed on location in one of the post-war modern developments encircling Paris, such as La Défense.  In reality, Tati build a massive and costly set for filming making Playtime the most expensive movie in French history to that point, and resulting in the film failing to make up the costs at the box office.  While I know this movie isn’t for everyone, I was impressed and touched by it. I think it would be worthwhile to watch again to catch the many things I’m certain I missed, especially if I have the opportunity to see on the big screen.

Rating: ****1/2