Playtime (1967)

playtime

Another month, another wonderful film discovery from my list of 12 Classics for 2016/ the Blind Spot Challenge. This month’s selection is the brilliant and delightfully busy Jacques Tati film Playtime, an unpredictable and extraordinary movie packed full of eye candy, activity and comment on the rigidity and absurdity of the urban landscape and ways humans deal with it. It’s a perfectly executed magic trick, full of slick, gorgeous, intricate clockwork sets (including an airport terminal, offices, and a restaurant nowhere near ready to open), a handful of likeable and unique characters who weave in and out of each other’s lives, and mobs of other players and passers-by who clearly share the viewer’s fascination with this incredible landscape.

There’s hardly a plot, mainly bumbling and slapstick galore, anchored by but not limited to Monsieur Hulot (Tati), his bewilderment and unlucky timing, and a sweet, wide-eyed tourist (Barbara Dennek). There are great running gags like the many old Army buddies Hulot keeps running into, or the tour guide forever counting heads. A model airplane melts in the restaurant heat then springs back to form once the AC panel is decoded, a jammed roundabout becomes a carousel, gadgetry fails and is incomprehensible, a designer leather chair breaks wind, and so on in a thousand clever moments.

Much of the amusement comes from an uneasy feeling, even an existential terror over the frantic flow and hard, unforgiving form of modern urban life. Beautiful, functional, gleaming design is as impressive as it is distressing and intimidating. Humans, especially awkward and passive ones, get swept away in the current or left behind. The ones who wander with the flow end up making and getting the most out of the endless curiosities, breakdowns of artifice, and hilariously random events. And what does a predetermined destination even mean in a world where travel posters advertise a familiar corporate sameness awaiting you all around the globe, with landmarks and local colour as almost incidental features, difficult to find or capture among the influences and visitors from other cultures.

playtime-restaurant

As strange and cold as this environment might sound, there is so much fun and warmth to be found in watching Hulot and company navigate it with a childlike wonder and interest. There are frames crowded with joyful sounds, faces, details and developments, nicely balanced with quiet: impossibly long hallways and waits for officials, mazes of cubicles or apartment windows seen from afar. There’s a thrill at the unexpected, comedy from the complications and ultimately a look at the irrepressible human spirit. All these lines, procedures, architecture and engineering are meant to move people a certain way and keep them apart according to their classes and functions. But it falls apart because people are social and spontaneous, they want what they want, they improvise and find each other, they walk into and communicate or smash through unnaturally placed doors, walls and columns, and sit at the table they like best. They inevitably end up doing their own chaotic thing and getting along just fine, dancing with a variety of folks they weren’t supposed to mingle with, and leaving the city changed for the better.

Click here to see many more film discoveries in the Blind Spot Series hosted by Ryan McNeil of The Matinee.

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12 thoughts on “Playtime (1967)”

  1. Great piece about a really very special film, so glad you enjoyed it. I just love Jacques Tati and Playtime is probably my favourite of his films. Each time I watch it there is something that I don’t quite recollect, quite often in the film there are slightly disconnected events in different parts of the screen so that the eye doesn’t know quite where to focus. It is a wonderful, unique film that I really must revisit.

    1. I bet I missed so many things on this first viewing, there’s so much detail, especially in that epic restaurant section. It seems like every person, every movement is carefully placed and there for a reason. It keep your eyes glued and I can’t say enough how much fun it was. Delightful!

  2. Playtime and Holiday are my favorite of Tati’s Hulot movies. What I like most about Playtime is the busy-ness of almost every scene; every time I watch the movie, I notice something new. My favorite bit are the spinning luggage tags as the tourists walk by.
    As for the other Hulot films, for Mon Oncle I’m just ‘meh’, and Trafic is one of my least favorite films 😐

    I enjoyed your review 😊

    1. Thanks, I so enjoyed this, it’s one of those “where has this been all my life” movies. It is wonderfully busy, so much to take in and all entertaining. You go along with the characters, feeling a bit overwhelmed. The only Tati film I’ve seen so far is Jour de Fete, so I look forward to more of his.

  3. I’m glad you enjoyed this one so much! It seems like you got a lot out of it already, but as the other commenters have said, there are always new things to notice on subsequent viewings, which is part of what makes it so wonderful and unique.

    1. For sure, it’s so much to take in, and brilliant “choreography” to have so much going on in the background. I loved how often passers-by stop to stare at something and become part of the scene and joke. Thanks for reading!

  4. You really did a great job evoking this wonderfully complex, aesthetically exhilarating comedy. I’ve only seen it once and what you wrote here made me keen to get back to it.

    1. Thanks! I can hardly wait to rewatch it and see everything I missed. Great description: complex and exhilarating, I was glued and so impressed.

  5. Tati is one of my favorites now. I actually saw Trafic relatively recently and although it’s slightly less well-known I still found it had much of the same ingenuity and comic charm of his earlier films. Thanks for sharing about Playitme!

    1. Look forward to seeing more of his movies now, thanks for suggesting Trafic! The thought and planning that went into this is incredible. Over a week now since watching and I keep thinking about so many of the scenes and how they “work.”

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