Tuesday, April 20, 2010


The Film: Playtime (112)
The Director: Jacques Tati (M. Hulot's Holiday (110), Mon Oncle (111))

What It Is:  The most ambitious, in my humble opinion, of Tati's M. Hulot Criterion-represented trifecta, Playtime (112) is yet another foray in to the bumbling bachelor's interactions with an incredibly modern France.  This go around finds M. Hulot courting a young tourist amongst technology fairs, imploding restaurants and so much more.  Quite honestly brilliant.

A Lil' Bit Of History: This is only Tati's fourth film as a director (he only made five) and it took nearly three years to shoot.  The film was shot on a massive, custom built sound stage (deemed 'Tativille') on an equally massive 70mm camera.  It's release drew critical praise, but financially it struggled to make back the enormous production costs Tati had accrued.

A Lil' Bit More History: To save money on the film, as Tati had invested a substantial bit of his own cashola in to the film, many of the background sets are actually just enormous photos.

The Expectation: Brilliance, exponentially compounding brilliance.

The Experience: It's been a sort of wild week of film, what with Mon Oncle (111) sliding down the hatch last week, House this weekend, and then a madcap rendezvous with this fantastic film over the course of the last three days.  I've taken to early morning film watching, with the Criterion Conquistador snoozing besides me, and after a failed attempt to work this morning, I came back and blissfully slipped in to Tativille and all that it entailed.

1.  Stunning

Over the course of the last month of Tati immersion, I've found myself more and more drawn to the director's ability to imbue scenes full of extras and set pieces with a sort of lonely sparseness.  Tati, in a gentle way, was at war with the idea of creeping modernity, and in each of his films, especially Mon Oncle (111) and this film, the scenes of hustle and bustle are projected as insincere, almost draining.  Yet Playtime (112), amongst it's subtle humor and sadness, is a stunning display of monochromatics.  Grey, black and white dominate most of the film, and my oh my, does Tati do a brilliant job of painting a stunning visage of a 1960s-style automated future.  The opening scene in an airport almost choked me up it was so attractive, and the film just snowballs in terms of cinematography from that point forth.  Tati's been referred to as a master of 'mise-en-scene' and Playtime (112) certainly proves that.

2.  Hulot as a character, not a lead.

Before doing any research on the film, you'll watch Playtime (112) and scratch your head, briefly, wondering where Tati's M. Hulot actually is.  The film, amazing nonetheless, is decidedly lacking M. Hulot. The trenchcoated gentlemen appearing infrequently and for only short intervals.  Though the film doesn't suffer a lick from his absence, there is reason to Tati's Hulot-less madness: he was tired of the character.  By the time Playtime (112) rolled around, Tati was more interested in lambasting the modern France he lived in than starring in the films he made.  The character of M. Hulot was so popular in France though, that he couldn't disconnect completely without losing a sizable bit of his audience.  Thus, Playtime (112) appears to be a Hulot film, but truthfully he's just another part of the crowd.  Luckily, Tati's films have always relied on a sort of communal feel, where Hulot exists as a important part, a softly lobbed pipe bomb, but never dominates the film.  His fleeting appearance in this film seem only a part of the general malaise towards city life and all its abysmal traits.

3.  Hulot's lacking pt. 2

That said, even if Tati pulled his beloved character to focus more on his true love - directing - Hulot's disappearance in the film seems to fit right at home in the Hulot-quartet (the final film being Trafic (439)).  Through each film we learn more about the character of M. Hulot (his family, his jobs, his aversion to technology) and in each film we're pulled more and more in to the modern world Tati creates.  Where M. Hulot's Holiday (110) finds M. Hulot a central character in a beach-side vacation town, Mon Oncle (111) finds him a bumbling uncle in a town slowly being consumed by rampant consumerism, and finally Playtime (112) finds him a wary visitor to a super-modern city.  And each film he's less and less involved in the actual plot, as if Hulot as a character disassociates more and more with the all-consuming advent of technology.  He's just got a pipe, an umbrella and a penchant for comical disaster, and the wild world of chugging cars and shiny glass windows isn't his place.  His bumbling lack of direction never has seemed so poignant, as the big, glowing city nearly swallows him up.

4.  Big, big, and bigger.

Tati literally built a city for this film and it's not even the biggest thing about it.  The near forty-minute Royal Garden scene is one of the largest, longest, most impressive set pieces created in the history of film.  With no Hulot in site, we the audience are invited in to the opening night festivities of entirely too-new upscale restaurant.  Everything, everything, quite quickly goes to shit, and the appearance of M. Hulot, an uproarious jazz band and a host of drunkards pushes right over the edge.  It's almost like a giant version of Where's Waldo where each time you look you find a new sight gag taking place, a new character to fixate on, a new explosion to giggle at.  It wanes and grows and swells and fluctuates in a way scenes, let alone films, just don't anymore. 

Last Words: Brilliant.  Mouth-watering.  Stunning. I can't write more about this film.  On a superficial level it's an achievement unequaled today.  Dig deeper though and this is a film rife with deep thoughts on technology, city life, the way we as a society are slowly losing ourselves to machines.  Playtime (112) is a film sixty years ahead of it's time, and anyone with a love for film needs to repeatedly lose themselves in it.


Criterion Counsel:  Gasping at the Tati-less near future, but excited as hell for whatever might come next.

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