Play Time

(France - 1967)

by Mike Lorefice

Cast: Jacques Tati
Genre: Comedy
Director: Jacques Tati
Screenplay: Jacques Lagrange & Jacques Tati
Cinematography: Jean Badal & Andreas Winding
Composer: Francis Lemarque
Runtime: 155 minutes

Frustrated with his films centering around the lone comic character of Mr. Hulot, Jacques Tati spent nearly a decade (not to mention every penny he had) putting together a new type of plotless, storyless, disposable dialogue collective comedy matching the large open spaces of modern buildings with the lack of individuality they create. The result was this wandering masterpiece that has some of the most impressive scope, detail, and set design ever displayed in the medium.

Shot in 70mm with the idea of focusing on everything and nothing at all times, foreground and background are simply obliterated so you don't know where the gags are coming from. The jokes simply spring on you from the repetition and amidst the barriers of modern architecture.

Not a traditional comedy in any sense, the gags aren't out to cause a riot but simply to put a little smile on your face. Tati's point is that everyone has become a tourist, but amidst the multilingual babble and rigid architecture there's still opportunity for humanity to come together. When this occurs, the audience will recognize it and react with the slight upturn of the face you get from suddenly comprehending what a friend is trying to tell you.

Due to the film being shot in medium-long shots at the very least, you'll have to work much harder for these moments than in other movies or perhaps even real life because the jokes never actually become the center of the cinematographers attention. Instead, they take place on the perimeter of the shot, somewhere in the background where the audience might miss them if they are too seduced by the shiny gloss of modernity, too taken in by the endless shopping mall. Much of the originality of the film lies here, in the fact that the only point of view is a purposely unfocused camera that allows us to simply laugh at the folly of modern man.

Playtime is very hopeful work because it proves despite the fact we continually allow ourselves to be subjected to even more inhuman surroundings, as long as humans inhabit these nonsensical creations there's still pleasure to be had. What makes the film work so well is Tati refuses to edit; the long continuous takes work perfectly with the wide-angle deep focus shots to never direct our attention.

Conceptually Playtime is a deeper film than Tati's previous work, and I won't dispute that it's even his most original, but I don't feel it's nearly as funny because it's inarguably more about observation than jokes. The elimination of the center of the film (Tati is as lost in unrecognizable modern Paris as the tourists) resulted in the elimination of most of the slow developing sight gags that made Tati's previous films so memorable. There are more audio gags here and the use of sound is very much ahead of its time, but the eradication of the old school hero also leads the film down the slippery slope of potentially being seen as celebrating much of what Tati had spent his previous films laughing at. Tati had always reinforced the relevance of humanity by combating the foolishness of bourgeois narcissists and corporate technologists, here everyone is doing little more than add to the milieu, generally they just take up space. Tati is simply being less obvious here, shifting the focus from an obviously isolated outsider to everyone and anyone to make the point that it's all of humanity who navigates in a confused yet hopeful manner.

I'm certainly in the minority because I consider Jour De Fete to be Tati's ultimate film. In some aspects it's not his best because it's his first feature, but it's where he originates his particular brand of silent comedy influenced sight gags. The Mr. Hulot films are more famous, but even though I saw the films in the wrong order, starting with Mr. Hulot's Holiday and moving on to Mon Oncle then Jour De Fete, I still laughed the most at Jour De Fete. More importantly, I feel it captures Tati's special genius at blending self comedy and jabs at modern technology. But even though Playtime doesn't excede Jour De Fete for entertainment value it's a one of a kind film. It's one of those few films where you might spend 2 hours wondering what on earth you are watching, but in the end you'll know you saw something..




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