Since its release almost four decades ago, Jacques Tati’s Playtime (1967) has aged like a fine wine. It start­ed life as a crit­i­cal punch­ing bag and slow­ly gained recog­ni­tion as an exquis­ite­ly detailed (and very fun­ny) vision of a bland and ulti­mate­ly bleak mod­ern distopia.

Monsieur Hulot gets lost in a mod­ernist maze.

The film presents a bemused vision of life in a Paris built by the International Style of archi­tec­ture. Playtime com­pris­es three main set-pieces, which take place at Orly Airport, an Office Building and a Restaurant. The film was shot pri­mar­i­ly on a large mod­ernist set which, it has been sug­gest­ed, was inspired by the archi­tec­ture of La Grande Arche de la Défense.

In fact the French press upon the film’s release named the set Tativille, in ref­er­ence to its mega­lo­ma­ni­ac scale and the huge expens­es that its direc­tor Jacques Tati per­son­al­ly incurred as a result. According to IMDB, pro­duc­tion of the film took three years, dur­ing which 100 con­struc­tion work­ers built two build­ings using 11,700 square feet of glass, 38,700 square feet of plas­tic, 31,500 square feet of tim­ber, and 486,000 square feet of con­crete.

Tati sketch­es out his cre­ation.

And tests it on site.

A quick vis­it to the offi­cial web­site ded­i­cat­ed to Tati’s work gives a good idea of the director’s out­stand­ing archi­tec­tur­al aes­thet­ic and his abil­i­ty to depict com­plex urban themes with a sim­ple visu­al lan­guage. To the crit­ic and nov­el­ist Gilbert Adair, “Playtime is not mere­ly set in a city, it itself is a city.” Paris is shown as a mod­ern, ster­ile city of glass, steel and con­crete through which Jacques Tati’s alterego Monsieur Hulot walks from one fran­tic sit­u­a­tion to the next as sev­er­al stereo­typ­i­cal char­ac­ters go about their stereo­typ­i­cal rou­tines. As crit­ic Roger Ebert writes in his review of the film,

Tati filmed his movie in 70mm, that grand epic for­mat that cov­ers the largest screens avail­able with the most detail imag­in­able. He shot entire­ly in medi­um-long and long shots; no close-ups, no reac­tion shots, no over the shoul­der. He shows us the big pic­ture all of the time, and our eyes dart around it to find action in the fore­ground, mid­dle dis­tance, back­ground and half-off­screen. It is dif­fi­cult some­times to even know what the sub­ject of a shot is; we notice one bit of busi­ness but miss oth­ers, and the crit­ic Noel Burch won­ders if “the film has to be seen not only sev­er­al times, but from sev­er­al dif­fer­ent points in the the­ater to be appre­ci­at­ed ful­ly.”

Point of View

Playtime fol­lows the main char­ac­ter Monsieur Hulot (played by Tati him­self) through sev­er­al elab­o­rate­ly chore­o­graphed spa­tial pit­falls. A very accom­plished mime, Tati can be con­sid­ered the deserv­ing heir to the silent cin­e­ma of Charlie Chaplin. However, where­as Chaplin’s Tramp is crafty and often sly, Tati’s Hulot is guile­less and benign, and only finds him­self caus­ing mishaps by acci­dent or chance. Hulot sort of drifts through the world as a most­ly silent observ­er, and usu­al­ly reacts to sit­u­a­tions in which he unin­ten­tion­al­ly finds him­self.

An obvi­ous descen­dant of the Hulot char­ac­ter is Rowan Atkinson’s Mr. Bean. However, where­as the lat­ter relies much more heav­i­ly on out­right phys­i­cal gags with an imme­di­ate pay­off that focus­es on the char­ac­ter him­self rather than the broad­er social con­text, the for­mer is much more sub­tle in the tim­ing of the humor, where jokes are metic­u­lous­ly set up, with the punch line often scenes away, and where the run­ning gags, detailed set design and col­or­ful back­ground char­ac­ters form a very poignant state­ment about the times, and about man’s rela­tion­ship with his sur­round­ings – with archi­tec­ture, com­merce, and cul­ture.

Playtime cre­ates a nat­ur­al sense of iden­ti­fi­ca­tion between the spec­ta­tor and Hulot, how­ev­er because Tati takes a com­plete­ly detached approach to fram­ing his scenes, the spectator’s point of view moves in and out of sync: at times it is con­sis­tent with that of Hulot, so that the spec­ta­tor falls prey to the same visu­al errors that he does, and at oth­er times it is allowed to see through a gag so that the spec­ta­tor can form a more accu­rate cog­ni­tive map of a space than Hulot or the oth­er char­ac­ters that inhab­it it.

In his rig­or­ous, almost stub­born use of medi­um lens­es, and in his avoid­ance of fan­cy cam­era effects and motion, Tati crafts what he called a “demo­c­ra­t­ic com­e­dy,” where the direc­tor does not punc­tu­ate gags with music or oth­er accents in an attempt to insti­gate laugh­ter, nor does the cam­era move in such a way as to guide the gaze along a cer­tain path. Instead, the view­er is allowed to “browse” the frame, cre­at­ing his own pat­terns and pace.

According to Sylvette Baudrot, who was Continuity Supervisor on the film, Tati used most­ly a 32 or 35mm lens, which (in the large for­mat he shot in) most close­ly approx­i­mates the human eye. Tati detest­ed close-ups con­sid­er­ing them crude and unsub­tle, and pre­ferred to guide the viewer’s atten­tion with aur­al rather than visu­al cues. In fact, it’s often said that Tati didn’t make sound movies, but silent movies with sound effects.

Sound

Sound and image inter­play.

The syn­chro­niza­tion of sound and image is one of the unique aspects of cin­e­ma as an art­form and medi­um. Whether this is done via live on-loca­tion sound record­ing, dub­bing and loop­ing, or sound effects, the intent is to recre­ate real­i­ty by allow­ing what we see and what we hear to be con­sis­tent. However, film­mak­ers often use tech­niques that sub­vert the expect­ed norm. Whether for dra­mat­ic, com­ic, or poet­ic effect, film­mak­ers often either allow sound and image to drift out of sync, com­plete­ly mis­match sound and image (a shot of a baby with the roar of a lion for instance), or match sounds and images in ways that cre­ate new mean­ing.

A case in point is a scene which starts with jazz play­ing on the sound­track. The music fades down as we hear the sound of saw­ing com­ing from some con­struc­tion work­ers with­in a build­ing. We also see through the win­dow five men car­ry­ing a large pane of glass. Just then out of the blue, an impromp­tu street band formed by a cou­ple of bystanders, using only their hands, noses and cheeks, begin trum­pet­ing a ren­di­tion of In a Persian Market. The lan­guorous move­ments of the men try­ing to maneu­ver the sheet of glass is thus trans­formed into an exot­ic and sen­su­ous dance.  It is an auda­cious­ly styl­is­tic choice by the direc­tor, in which the sounds made by the “band” com­bine with the melody on the sound­track into an audio-visu­al har­mo­ny that takes the view­er by sur­prise with its sim­ple poet­ry.

Surface

Space is visu­al­ly con­tin­u­ous…

… but sec­tioned off with sur­faces.

Hulot is vis­i­ble but unreach­able.

Tati drafts his the­sis on Parisian mod­ernism by also apply­ing visu­al jux­ta­po­si­tions. The film uses sur­faces to great effect to show how trans­parence and reflec­tion can often cause dis­ori­ent­ing effects. In one scene for instance, Tati stages a gag that on one lev­el could be inter­pret­ed as a visu­al pun, and on anoth­er as a bit­ing crit­i­cism of the over-preva­lence of glass in mod­ern archi­tec­ture. A man asks an old guard for a match. The guard has to indi­cate to the man to walk into the build­ing before the cam­era dol­lies out, reveal­ing that the two men are actu­al­ly sep­a­rat­ed by a large glass win­dow. As film his­to­ri­an Philip Kemp com­ments,

The ambiva­lent qual­i­ty of glass – at once present and invis­i­ble, destroy­ing pri­va­cy but cut­ting peo­ple off from each oth­er, clear­ly pre­oc­cu­pied Tati, no less than it obsessed archi­tects of the peri­od. Throughout Playtime, we are made con­scious of the pres­ence or absence of glass, its decep­tive and mis­lead­ing nature.

Reflections have a more neg­a­tive effect when Hulot, hot on the pur­suit of com­pa­ny work­er Mr. Giffard through an office build­ing, catch­es a reflec­tion of his prey on a glass pane and is mis­led into think­ing that Giffard is in anoth­er build­ing and runs out to catch him, just miss­ing the real Giffard who is in fact pur­su­ing him.

While this visu­al pun­nage is high­ly enjoy­able, direc­tor Jacques Tati in fact has in Playtime a more intel­lec­tu­al agen­da that only ful­ly reveals itself towards the end of the film: Tati grieves the loss of an old­er, more cul­tur­al­ly and his­tor­i­cal­ly spe­cif­ic Paris, which has now come to resem­ble any oth­er city in the world – a jun­gle of con­crete and glass.

Tati’s Paris is impos­si­ble to frame.

In a scene mid­way through Playtime, an American tourist comes across an old lady sell­ing flow­ers out of a tent-like kiosk at the foot of a mas­sive con­crete build­ing. “This is the real Paris!” she hap­pi­ly exclaims, but no mat­ter how many times she tries, she fails to cap­ture a pho­to that does not include mod­ern and for­eign Paris in the frame. Tati con­trasts the expec­ta­tions of the tourist with the real­i­ty of the city with­out ever being cyn­i­cal or bit­ter. He strikes a timid bal­ance between show­ing that tech­nol­o­gy does have its ben­e­fits in cre­at­ing a high­ly effi­cient and orga­nized world, but that iron­i­cal­ly too much effi­cien­cy leads to inef­fi­cien­cy. He seems to be say­ing that was inevitable that mod­ern cities would acquire their cur­rent form because of their high degree of func­tion­al­i­ty and the con­ve­nience of mass-pro­duc­tion.

Tati’s elab­o­rate visu­al and spa­tial gags play on the con­trast between mate­ri­als, the sol­id opac­i­ty of con­crete and the reflec­tive trans­paren­cy of glass, to explore the illu­sive nature of these arti­fi­cial sur­faces. One reflects anoth­er with such intri­ca­cy and total­i­ty that one is nev­er sure whether one sees the sur­face itself, its shad­ow or its reflec­tion. This is an archi­tec­ture of par­al­lel rec­ti­lin­ear sur­faces that inter­sect and stag­ger, and around which space flows con­tin­u­ous­ly yet remains stri­at­ed and demar­cat­ed. As shown in Playtime, this archi­tec­tur­al min­i­mal­ism is a two-edged sword: it could be sub­lime or bor­ing, lib­er­at­ing or frus­trat­ing, extreme­ly expan­sive or total­ly claus­tro­pho­bic, tech­ni­cal­ly per­fect or infi­nite­ly repeat­able.

Paris, Hawaii or Mexico?

Eiffel Tower hides in reflec­tions.

Reflections shift…

… to reveal a hid­den sky.

In a lat­er scene from Playtime, the tourist walks into a trav­el agency and finds that posters adver­tis­ing trips to sev­er­al loca­tions around the world all look like the Paris in the film, with its grey mod­ern archi­tec­ture. The cities are as mass-pro­ducible as the posters on which their images are print­ed.

We only catch indi­rect glimpses of a more iden­ti­fi­able Paris, such as when the Eiffel Tower is reflect­ed on a glass door as it is swung open. This effect is repeat­ed towards the end of the film when a glass clean­er swings a win­dow up and down and tourists in a bus cheer with amaze­ment as it catch­es reflec­tions of the blue sky. For all his caus­tic visu­al sar­casm, Tati’s feel­ings towards the archi­tec­ture he depicts with Playtime remain quite com­plex. Philip Kemp quotes the direc­tor,

If I had been against mod­ern archi­tec­ture, I would have shown the ugli­est build­ings. Instead, he explained, he made Tativille “so that no archi­tect could say any­thing against it. I took the finest I could, these build­ings are beau­ti­ful.”

Tati is very aware that the film screen itself is yet anoth­er sur­face. In Playtime, as much occurs at the edges of the screen as does in its cen­ter, invit­ing the view­er to con­stant­ly shift the focus of her gaze, so that the screen sur­face itself is bro­ken down into sev­er­al zones of activ­i­ty that give it depth.

Over the course of the film, his mis­trust of the rec­ti­lin­ear sur­face grad­u­al­ly finds its way to his char­ac­ters, so that while in the begin­ning of the film they fol­low the strict rec­ti­lin­ear con­tours of these sur­faces, by the end they freely roam around the screen in a kind of mass hys­te­ria that negates the sys­tem­at­ic archi­tec­ture around them.

Pattern

Playtime takes a move­ment, a ges­ture, the shape of an inan­i­mate object and gives it sig­nif­i­cance as it is echoed or repeat­ed, turned into a pat­tern. Tati him­self described the plot of his film – in so far as it has one – in terms of straight lines grad­u­al­ly becom­ing curves. “At the begin­ning,” he explained, “the people’s move­ments fol­low the archi­tec­ture. They nev­er make a curve, they go from one line to anoth­er.” Philip Kemp conit­nues,

People move in straight lines, turn smart­ly at right angles; the archi­tec­ture is dic­tat­ing the way peo­ple behave. As the film pro­gress­es, curves begin to intrude on the clin­i­cal straight lines. People start to reclaim these aus­tere spaces, even to mess them up and break them down, allow­ing human-shaped spaces to emerge with­in it. If Playtime has a plot, it’s how the curve comes to reassert itself over the straight line.

Tati plays tricks with per­spec­tive.

Waiter serves cham­pagne or waters the plants.

The Emperor makes an appear­ance.

Tati makes a visu­al pun.

Sometimes, these visu­al effects are used so sub­tly as to be bare­ly notice­able, such as in the scene where com­pa­ny work­er Mr. Giffard walks through a cor­ri­dor that is made to seem much longer by the fact that the actor is walk­ing in place for most of the shot. In oth­er instances, visu­al trick­ery is used in a way that inten­tion­al­ly draws atten­tion to itself, such as in anoth­er scene where a wait­er serves Champagne to a group of ladies wear­ing hats embroi­dered with flow­ers. Because Tati uses a medi­um lens that does not exag­ger­ate per­spec­tive, and because we see the scene from behind, it appears as if the wait­er is pour­ing the drink straight into the ladies’ hats, as if he were water­ing the flow­ers. This flat­ten­ing of per­spec­tive is used in yet anoth­er scene, where a chef peer­ing out of a coun­ter­top win­dow from below a black slid­ing par­ti­tion is made to look like Napoleon Bonaparte. One guest even tags a coast­er on the par­ti­tion to make it look like a badge on Napoleon’s hat.

These are both exam­ples of tech­niques that shape and trans­form space in ways that some­what negate its orig­i­nal form. This is most pow­er­ful when it is done not mere­ly for visu­al pur­pos­es, but for the pur­pose of reveal­ing the incon­sis­ten­cy or sim­ple irony that is already inher­ent in almost all spa­tial expe­ri­ence.

Such is the case in anoth­er scene in which two apart­ment blocks are shown side by side. We view the scene from the exte­ri­or and can see two fam­i­lies simul­ta­ne­ous­ly through large trans­par­ent glass panes, and know that there is a divid­ing wall between the two res­i­den­tial units. However, as the scene plays along, we “for­get” the divid­ing wall, and it begins to seem as if each fam­i­ly, in fact watch­ing tele­vi­sion, is react­ing to what is going on next door.

It is an inge­nious sight gag that not only sat­i­rizes the banal uni­for­mi­ty of domes­tic life, but also the iso­lat­ed and detached exis­tence that indi­vid­ual fam­i­lies lead in urban apart­ments, even while the apart­ments them­selves are in very close prox­im­i­ty to one anoth­er. In this scene, even though Tati’s set ini­tial­ly mim­ics real­i­ty (albeit in a some­what exag­ger­at­ed man­ner), as the scene pro­gress­es the set func­tions as a sort of abstract spoof of a par­tic­u­lar urban and archi­tec­tur­al con­di­tion.

Space

Lines trans­form to curves.

Playtime is one of the very few films I can recall that not only has a very rich and detailed set design, but in which the char­ac­ters active­ly inter­act with the sets, trans­form them, and cre­ate new archi­tec­tur­al spaces with new bound­aries right before our eyes. This is espe­cial­ly evi­dent in the final third of the film, which almost com­plete­ly takes place in a pre­ten­tious upscale Parisian restau­rant called the Royal Garden. The sequence is the coup de grace of Tati’s lov­ing crit­i­cism of archi­tec­tur­al dog­ma­tism, the first half of which was set in an a glass and steel office build­ing in which employ­ees were boxed-in by com­pact and high­ly effi­cient work­ing cubi­cles.

On the oth­er hand, this final sequence is set in a restau­rant dur­ing open­ing night, while the builders are still mak­ing the final touch­es to the fin­ish­ing even as the guests begin to arrive. The first mishap is a har­bin­ger of the dis­as­ters to come, as a loose tile gets stuck to the shoe of the maitre d’. As the restau­rant fills up, the staff strug­gle to keep up with the ris­ing chaos of mis­placed orders, guests chang­ing tables and sea­son­ing the same fish at least three times. Things real­ly come to a head when Hulot (who else?) acci­den­tal­ly pulls down a por­tion of false ceil­ing and the wood­en pan­el­ing comes crash­ing down, form­ing a par­ti­tion between an ad hoc niche space and the rest of the restau­rant.

Ironically, the sequence for all its noisy rev­o­lu­tion­ary loud­ness and irrev­er­ence ends with a shot of a drunk young man, a sin­gle soli­tary fig­ure, stand­ing in the open air against the loom­ing sil­hou­ette of a large glass and steel build­ing, as a roost­er crows and a loud sigh is emit­ted by the crowd from inside the restau­rant.

Modernism can be bleak

It is hard to know what to make of this sud­den, almost sur­re­al shot. My inter­pre­ta­tion is that the build­ing, which is a fall­back to the loca­tions of the first half of the film, reminds us that the scene in the restau­rant, where every­one let loose in the spir­it of the old Paris, was but a brief inter­lude in this mod­ern world, a dis­creet affair in the night, end­ed by the com­ing of dawn and the crow­ing of the roost­er. However, the fol­low­ing scenes that led up to the end of the film con­tin­ue in the same warm ambiance start­ed by the impromp­tu bistro. A drug­store that was ini­tial­ly shown as a cold, inhos­pitable, green-lit space now bus­tles with a live­ly crowd.

These scenes would be very hope­ful were they not drenched in a dream-like qual­i­ty that com­press­es time such that dawn is soon fol­lowed by dusk. Instead, these clos­ing scenes take on a feel­ing of melan­choly and nos­tal­gia, of a cer­tain wish­ful think­ing on the part of Tati, some­how as if he is reluc­tant, despite every­thing, to go back to show­ing day­time Paris in the same way he did dur­ing the first half of the film.

Here the direc­tor takes artis­tic license (one is tempt­ed to say, even plays archi­tect). He ends the film not with the hyper-real Paris of the present, but with the whim­si­cal Paris of his mem­o­ry, and to the sweet melody of an accor­dion.

Directed by and Starring Jacques Tati

This sto­ry is from Meedo’s upcom­ing book mon­tage­space: Cinema and the Making, Un-Making and Re-Making of Architecture. Please feel free to con­tact us for more details and read relat­ed sto­ries here.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Ei December 8, 2010 at 5:28 am

I don't understand the reference to the Grand Arc la Defense - as you know it probably very well it was built a good fifteen years later than Tati's film was made.

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Meedo December 25, 2010 at 11:27 am

Good point. I should have said "inspired by the hypermodern style of architecture which later culminated in the Grande Arche."

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