Imagine this: a film shot entirely without a single close-up of a face, or an inserted detail of action. A film without a central character, and very little conventional dialogue. A film in which, for much of the time, you are watching not two or three people, but a dozen or fifty – and not one of them is an insignificant or merely idling extra. A film in which every edit wrenches you into a disorienting position. A film that is impossible to take in entirely on a first viewing – or even on a twentieth viewing.
All this, and a comedy too: welcome to Jacques Tati's Playtime. If you are not completely exhausted by the end of this film, then you have not been doing your work as a spectator. But never have work and play been so magnificently, deliriously confused as here.
Playtime is one of the true monuments of film history. But, like Citizen Kane (1941), it took a while to find its rightful place in the canon. An expensive project which was a disastrous flop for Tati in its day, it quickly disappeared in its original, 70 millimetre form.
Seeing it restored to its original glory in the new millennium is a dream come true for cinephiles – akin to looking at a great painting up close and personal, restored to its pristine condition.
You need to position yourself well in the auditorium to take in Playtime properly. The film is, like no other I have seen, a total sensory experience, a whole world conjured on screen. You cannot lazily let your eye go to where the central action is playing out, because there is no central action. You have to try to master the entire frame, top, bottom and sides – an impossible but immensely enjoyable challenge.
What is the content of Playtime? It is certainly not to be found in the slim, almost non-existent plotline. A group of American tourists arrive at a French airport, take a bus, shop, go to a restaurant on its chaotic opening night, take another bus. Tati in his famous comic persona of Mr Hulot flits in and around the path of the tourists, trying and failing to keep an appointment – but watch out, Tati will keep fooling you with a seemingly endless number of Hulot look-alikes.
Is it a satire on the modern world? Not quite. After Mon Oncle (1958) – a transitional film between his two most perfect achievements, Mr Hulot's Holiday (1953) and this – Tati became known as a gentle social critic, a commentator on the alienation created by new technology and the dream of the 'house of tomorrow'.
It was a label with which he felt uncomfortable. If Tati was a critic of anything, it was the ingrained habits of moviegoers. He aimed to liberate them from conventional patterns of looking and listening, feeling and imagining.
For this task, he required a vast playground, and the modern metropolis – with its serial skyscrapers, shiny technology and overcrowding – was where he created it. Or rather, re-created it, for Playtime is an awesome feat of set design and construction. He named this mini-city Tativille, and was bitterly disappointed to see it demolished.
There are many small, caustic jokes in the film about tourism, advertising, the dwarfing of the individual by the corporation, and so on. But essentially, the film is a celebration, not so much of the 'built environment', but the worlds we make for ourselves inside that environment. For Tati, even the simple act of observing, in an alert, open way – to catch a glimpse of something ephemeral, whimsical or surreal – is a radical act of re-making the world.
It is often said that films including Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927) and Ridley Scott's Blade Runner (1982) are 'about' architecture – which usually means they contain a few striking shots, interspersed throughout the story, of futuristic cityscapes and strange building facades. But when it comes to the marriage of film and architecture, Playtime is the real deal.
There is no movie in cinema history more intricately structured upon the dissolution of the boundary between public and private space. Glass walls are ubiquitous – but not always visible, as a series of hilarious gags makes clear. An extraordinary sequence, not always present in the 35 millimetre prints previously available, shows us two families side by side in display lounge rooms, their respective actions mirroring and complementing each other without them knowing it.
This film comes from an extraordinary moment in film history. Playtime, Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey and John Boorman's Point Blank, all from the period of 1967 and 1968, are frankly experimental works. They boldly explore the most advanced formal techniques, and demand much of their audience. And yet, at the same time, they hold onto and re-energise the conventions of the endearingly popular genres of comedy, sci-fi and crime fiction.
Gus Van Sant's Elephant (2003) recaptures, in a small but significant way, the glory of this moment. Going against all phony film industry wisdom, it too eschews plot, heroes, and a central conflict. Like Playtime, it offers the gradual, non-narrative description of a complex event or happening, and it rivets us to the force and significance of every camera movement, every edit, every well-chosen sound. As in Tati, the form does not dress up the content – it becomes the content.
But where Elephant is a gloomy look at social trauma, Playtime is a joyful dance. Watching and listening to this film, trying to keep up with its boundless invention, is like riding a wave. Your eyes dart everywhere, you are always trying to find the visual source for an odd sound. Every time the camera's perspective changes, you must quickly, mentally re-map the space and review what you have learnt about it.
Playtime builds to an astonishing, extended, frantically busy sequence in a restaurant. After twenty viewings of the film over as many years, I have not yet begun to exhaust the riches of this sequence. (Note on twentieth viewing: every character has their own distinctive way of dancing.) Even those Tati devotees who warm to the more sedate, focused humour of Jour de Fete (1949) and Mr Hulot's Holiday can feel at sea here.
Tati abandons the classic gag structure of set-up, development and pay-off – or rather, he scatters these stages so cagily, and has so many gags going at once, that you are forced to find the connections yourself. Playtime is the only film I know which can make different spectators laugh at different things at the same time – a disarming but wonderful experience. Tati's dream was to make a kind of expanded cinema, with multiple points of focus like a circus arena – a dream to which he returned in his final feature film, Parade (1974).
There is the merest hint of a romantic intrigue in Playtime – between Hulot and a winsome American tourist (Barbara Dennek). They scarcely meet, and in the final scene are prevented from even saying goodbye by the impedimenta of a store and a street. But he manages to pass on to her, via an intermediary, a little trinket which – in one of the film's many poetic touches – echoes the shape of the lights on the highway. The woman simply says to her companion: "He gave me this".
How typical of the genius of Tati: to conclude, on the token of a poignant, tiny present, this masterpiece which is itself the grandest, most spectacular gift that any great filmmaker ever gave to his loyal fans.
© Adrian Martin April 2004