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.
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.