Directed by Jacques Tati
Written by Jacques Lagrange & Jacques Tati
A few years back I had the opportunity to see a wonderful little French film called The Illusionist, no, not the Ed Norton Prestige competitor. This was a quaint animated film that accented the fall of the career of a French illusionist in a very enjoyable, yet very sad, melancholy manner. As he tours Scotland with a small girl, amazed at his ability, our illusionist protagonist becomes more and more antiquated. I bring this up because when that film was released, I came upon the realization that it was in fact my introduction to Jacques Tati. Based on an unproduced screenplay from the acclaimed French actor/director, The Illusionist captured and enraptured my attention and appreciation. It all makes sense after watching this, my first true Hulot/Tati treat.
Much like the film I referenced above, Playtime has very little dialogue in it, which makes it unconventional from most comedies you see, especially in this day and age. But it also make it a bit of a plotless journey on which Hulot has merrily invited us. Hulot (Tati) arrives in a modern Paris to have an appointment with a businessman, but along the way he encounters all manner of technological barriers, foreign to the simple old man. He also interacts with a host of characters which range from touring Americans, an old man working in the office building he visits who is equally inept at the fancy new gadgets, and a host of party-seeking folks at a newly opened night club that is falling apart at the seems due to the fancy designs of its ambitious architect. There is not much story, only a journey through modern time for Hulot.
But the lack of plot hardly keeps the film down. I must admit that I was not nearly as enamored with the film as I was with The Illusionist. It lacked a certain sense of wonder and mystery, as well as compassion and tenderness. There were times throughout the viewing experience where I began to find the process to grow somewhat tedious. Somewhat harsh criticisms of what is known as a beloved film. Perhaps I was expecting to laugh more than I did (I barely chuckled throughout). However, in retrospect, my appreciation grew not only after the full runtime had passed, but even now as time has passed since, and I have time to summarize the film and my feeling towards it. This is often the case with any movie, but by my own admission, my immediate reaction to the film was quite drab.
But drab is a good thing here for a couple of reasons. I love how the film is shot in such a drab, monochrome style. As a color film, and a comedy, it was very boring visually in that the sets and colors were all very monotonous and gray, lacking any panache. How perfect for a film that introduces such a colorful character into such a boring world of organized cleanliness. The urban modern setting becomes a statement for Tati on the uninspired. Everything seems so clean, someone even comments on how it is so in the airport. Everything is so organized, like the tourist buses and hotels. Everything is so uniform, like the offices of the building Hulot visits. And the result of all of this is boring. These people are boring, the city is boring, the architecture is boring because it is the same. Life takes some dirty, and unexpected. It takes spontaneity, and Hulot is able to provide.
In the second half of the film we get treated to what happens when everything doesn’t go according to plan when we enter the night club where things begin to unravel. A couple decides to take the plunge and enter the dancefloor, noting that “somebody has to be first”. And then, quite literally, everything starts to fall apart. Things shatter, they short circuit, they even collapse. What ensues is a fun night of spontaneous joy, and fun. Hulot is merely a catalyst. The cast of hundreds brings the action to life. A woman in green steps up to keep things going on the piano, and the crowd christens the club into well into the morning hours. It was this second half of the film that made me realize how wonderful the film truly is. Does not a whole lot happen in two hours? Perhaps, but that nothing is quite fun, even if it is not hilarious comedy. I didn’t love my first viewing of this film, but I appreciated the heck out it, that’s for sure.