Film: Playtime

Jacques Tati’s Playtime (1967) is unlike anything I’ve ever seen before, a colorful, rambling, oddball affair that doesn’t so much tell a story as…depict conditions? Shot largely on an enormous, elaborate set covering multiple city blocks, it’s an unconventionally structured film that both celebrates and ridicules modern life in mid-sixties Paris. It follows a bumbling fellow named Hulot (Tati) as he fumbles his way through several scenarios—a job interview at a nebulous, highly inefficient corporation, a deeply weird trade fair, the chaotic first-night opening of a hip new night club. Running parallel to Hulot’s quirky, herky-jerky experience is a subplot involving an American tour group, which includes a young tourist named Barbara (Barbara Dennek), with whom Dennek is destined to have a charming, brief acquaintance.

That’s it; that’s the plot, such as it is. Playtime isn’t interested in conventional story so much as comical commentary, which is assayed in the form of numerous loosely interconnected episodes featuring hundreds of characters, some recurring, others fleeting. Although there’s plenty of dialogue, it never entirely feels like it’s coming out of the characters’ mouths; there’s a dubbed, multilingual ambience that clarifies theme and humor. The film’s entire approach to sound is an innovative, unsettling blend of foley and overdub. Meanwhile, the visuals—gorgeous shots of amazing sets, frames bursting with characters in random-seeming but highly blocked and choreographed interaction—are eye-popping. This is cinema that simply looks and feels different than your average film.

Considering when it was made, Playtime’s aesthetic still feels weirdly relevant. It’s somehow wildly dated and strikingly futuristic at the same time, which makes its subtle, subliminal message of western society’s conformity, inefficiency, and absurdity feel timeless. The film is full of silly people doing silly things, basic day-to-day activities everyone takes for granted, even if they serve little purpose, are wildly inefficient, or contribute to awkward interpersonal situations. As Hulot, Tati negotiates it all as a relatably fumbling viewpoint, staggering clumsily through the societal maze.

Playtime is constructed of several sequences, not all of them equally enthralling. But the second-to-last sequence—which takes a  night club’s opening day from its frantic last-minute preparations to a catastrophic party that highlights the futility of our best laid plans—is a masterpiece, paying off the earlier groundwork. By the end, the result of this wild mosaic is a unique, cumulative emotional effect, a sly, somewhat cynical, but heartfelt kind of joy. Kind of a fascinating film.

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