Playtime

A part of this view­ing list: Criterion Collection Spine #112: Jacques Tati’s Playtime.

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M. Hulot is back, at least part-time, for his last ap­pear­ance in cin­e­ma. Playtime con­tin­ues Tati’s tra­di­tion of sat­i­riz­ing the mun­dane, but un­like M. Hulot’s Holiday, this time the fo­cus is on moder­ni­ty rather than leisure time. Filmed near­ly 15 years af­ter Holiday, Tati has pol­ished Hulot’s man­ner­isms and now makes him work smarter, not hard­er when he is on-screen. In fact, there are faux-Hulot’s through­out the film, con­fus­ing both the spec­ta­tor and var­i­ous char­ac­ters in the film it­self.

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This sort of re­fine­ment in­creas­es the en­joy­a­bil­i­ty fac­tor of the film, but it is hard to dis­cov­er this fact un­til the very end.. There is quite a bit of slap­stick in­volved, but it is so re­strained as to be al­most un­com­fort­able; the sound of hard shoes on a hard floor, the ir­ra­tional mod­u­la­tions of ven­ti­la­tion sys­tems, the un­in­tel­li­gi­ble mur­murs of smalltalk, all com­bi­nes to make am­bi­ent sound its own char­ac­ter in the film. The whole en­vi­ron­ment of in mod­ern city life cre­ates un­in­ten­tion­al hi­lar­i­ty af­ter un­in­ten­tion­al hi­lar­i­ty, and part of what strength­ens this as­pect is that none of the peo­ple in the film no­tice that some­thing fun­ny is hap­pen­ing; a facet that was not present in M. Hulot’s Holiday.

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Every per­son in the film seems ob­sessed with be­ing as mod­ern [and to Tati, as ridicu­lous] as pos­si­ble. There is an em­pha­sis on pro­to­col, fol­low­ing the di­rec­tions of the mod­ern man­ner and de­vices, when the old ways would be faster and less prone to con­fu­sion. At one point Hulot wan­ders in­to a trade show of new in­ven­tions and they are pos­si­bly the stu­pid­est things ever in­vent­ed. [e.g. a broom with head­lights, a silent door [which sounds al­right un­til you need to slam it for ef­fect]]. The sales­per­sons earnest­ly dis­play their Ionic column trash cans and pan­tomime their use, and there are ubiq­ui­tous leather chairs that act like whoopee cush­ions when­ev­er some­one so much as touch­es them. But, all this is “mod­ern” and so over­looked by peo­ple do­ing their best to ap­pear mod­ern them­selves.

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This is in­fu­ri­at­ing, and it all comes to a head in an in­ter­minable se­quence at a night club that has opened even though con­struc­tion on it hasn’t fin­ished. In their haste to be mod­ern they’ve ne­glect­ed com­mon sense on every lev­el. The chairs ru­in people’s cloth­ing, they on­ly had enough food for 27 peo­ple, the kitchen is com­plete­ly un­fin­ished, and the neon sign di­rects the bounced right back in­side. Thankfully every­one thinks this is just part of the restaurant’s mod­ern am­bi­ence and play along un­til the band gets frus­trat­ed and leaves. After this cli­max the peo­ple start act­ing like re­al peo­ple for a change and the at­mos­phere of the film ceas­es to be as bland in col­or [rem­i­nis­cent of Le samouraï]and af­fect as it has for most of the film. It ends with a vi­brant re­lease of col­or, a round­about be­comes a carousel, and we get a feel­ing that there is some­thing sub­lime about be­ing so ridicu­lous.

Oh yeah, I al­most for­got to men­tion the ref­er­ence to Godard’s Breathless that takes place in the film. You couldn’t miss it if you tried.

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Criterion Essay by Jonathan Rosenbaum.
Roger Ebert Review.
• Details on the re­con­struc­tion of the 70mm print.
• Senses of Cinema ar­ti­cle on Tati.
• Cinematic Reflections ar­ti­cle on the film.
Five clips from the film on YouTube.

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