Modernism breeds alienation. That much you probably already know. Even then, you haven’t seen it illustrated quite like this. For all the acclaim it’s received then and now, Jacques Tati’s Playtime still feels like an underrated masterpiece. Critical, need-to-know information: if you have a library card, make an account on Kanopy and you can watch it for free. You’re welcome.
Tati’s tour-de-force is set in a futuristic Paris that’s dominated by consumerist tendencies. Structured in six sequences, each with distinctly different yet realized settings, the plot is almost entirely circumstantial and the dialog inessential, evident in the occasionally fleeting subtitles. Characters are replaced with passersby, and Tati’s famous Monsieur Hulot — complete with a raincoat, hat, and a pipe — appears to be wandering around inadvertently, in search of a clue, and maybe ultimately a purpose. Hulot was also featured in Mr. Hulot’s Holiday and Mon Oncle roughly a decade earlier.
To spoil all the wonders of the sets would be unforgivable. Playtime is about letting your eyes dance around the screen, creating a ballet of sorts. This is evident in the film’s first sequence, set in a vast, impersonal airport where an American tour group arrives amidst several others mystifyingly navigating through the terminals. Hulot finds himself captivated by an uncommonly squeaky chair. Machines tower over their operators letting out ominous noises as buttons are pushed and levers are pulled. This is modernity run amok, and the atmosphere it creates is one of confusion and bustle.
Rather brilliantly, however, Tati finds humor in the general happenstance of things. The geometric mise-en-scène puts added attention on blocking schemes and depth perception. The common activities we do every day that amount to little else other than momentary frustrations or intermittent hang-ups are pulled into the central focus. A character’s bewilderment with a door that doesn’t make a sound when slammed or another’s frustration with a short-circuiting lighting fixture loans itself to chuckles. It too adds to the film’s observation of the clunky awkwardness that can come from so-called technical advancements.
The absence of a plot puts more emphasis on the visual experience. Tati shows people vying for personal connection in a sea of interchangeable faces, neatly tailored suits, and sterile architecture. Playtime is defined by movement. Someone or something is always moving. The locations we visit and the folks we see are transient, with busloads of people coming or going yet largely keeping to themselves. Sure, there’s an extended sequence at the Royal Garden restaurant, brimful with elites, but it’s a lot of noise. Tati doesn’t allow our focus to be narrowed to a couple characters for an extended period of time. We get everything in total view and our eyes are encouraged to dance.
You can’t talk about Playtime without mentioning the elaborate visuals Tati and cinematographers Jean Badal and Andréas Winding have created. Tati shot the film in “Tativille,” an enormous set constructed just outside of Paris that housed an airport terminal, life-sized city streets, skyscrapers, cubicle offices, large-scale windowfronts, and a tight traffic-circle. It’s unlike anything you’ve seen and unlike anything you will ever see. The closest comparison is probably Steven Spielberg’s underrated film The Terminal (inspired by Playtime), which saw a crew assemble a full-scale airline terminal for filming purposes. The result was commendably organic. This is something other-worldly in both scale and execution.
In addition, Tati’s film is entirely comprised of medium or long-shots. No close-ups whatsoever. This style leads to some immaculate sound design as Tati keeps us at a distance from the action in effort to survey the atmosphere. Sometimes it takes the viewer several beats to discern the focal point; sometimes, it is what you make of it. At one point, Hulot bumps into an old friend who invites him into his spacious interior for a drink. Hulot enters, but we remain outside, staring at the action through a spotless glass window. We’re able to see gestures, but not hear dialog — instead the sounds of a futuristic Paris that never sleeps. More than once the beeps and boops of heavy machinery overtake the soundtrack. This is a masterclass in auditory innovation. Tati and company remain hyper-cognizant of the camera placement, and as such, what can be heard and what wouldn’t be heard in any given spot.
Tati’s Playtime is famously film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum’s favorite film. Like the astute writer he is, he doesn’t subscribe to the notion that the film revolves around urban alienation. “It directs us to look around at the world we live in (the one we keep building), then at each other,” he writes, “and to see how funny that relationship is and how many brilliant possibilities we still have in a shopping-mall world that perpetually suggests otherwise; to look and see that there are many possibilities and that the play between them, activated by the dance of our gaze, can become a kind of comic ballet, one that we both observe and perform.”
Therein, he illustrates the complex beauty of Playtime. It’s a film that requires multiple viewings, and surely you’ll notice new details upon each rewatch. Great films improve with age and repeated viewings, and Playtime proves itself to be timeless within the first few minutes. What you take away is like the world in which we live: relevant but fleeting, subject to change with little warning, as change and advancements remain the only guarantees in this life.
NOTE: As of this writing, Jacques Tati’s Playtime is available to stream on Kanopy with a free account tied to your library card. You can access Kanopy on your computer or download the Roku app.
Starring: Jacques Tati, Barbara Dennek, and Jacqueline Lecomte. Directed by: Jacques Tati.
Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!