Friday, June 27, 2014

Play Time (1967)

France / Italy, 124 minutes
Director: Jacques Tati
Writers: Art Buchwald, Jacques Lagrange, Jacques Tati
Photography: Jean Badal, Andreas Winding
Music: Francis Lemarque
Editor: Gerard Pollicand
Cast: Jacques Tati, Barbara Dennek, Jacqueline Lecomte, Henri Piccoli, Michel Francini, Georges Montant

With Play Time, we find yet another highly lauded movie from the big list at They Shoot Pictures Don't They? with yet another unfortunate air of failure (thinking also of Vertigo, Metropolis, The Magnificent Ambersons, etc.). Director and co-writer Jacques Tati bankrupted himself on the most expensive movie ever made in France to that point, and then it never came close to making back its money. It's not hard to see where it went. The picture is shot in 70 mm (which is how it should properly be seen, though I haven't managed it myself yet) and features giant complicated sets, so imposing that collectively they came to be known as "Tativille" during the shoot.

Full disclosure: The first time I saw Play Time it left me cold—I knew my TV screen was too small and blurry to really do it justice but it seemed so aimless and dry I couldn't imagine a big size rescuing it. But maybe this is a movie that should always get a second chance, because the next time, more recently, I was charmed, often floored, and even laughing aloud at some of the goings-on. Until that point I had classified it as a comedy that was humorous and light-hearted but not actually funny. Now I see it as almost mordant, so dim is its view of the modern condition (for lack of a better phrase), and often wickedly funny in that context.

Tati is one of a kind—and may even be fairly classified as an acquired taste—but his sources go directly to the film comedians  of silent pictures and early talkies. He continually throws up giant canvases and moves people and things across and around them, here using tourists in groups and buses and glass and square angles to erect his vision of a sterile modern world of skyscrapers, concrete, and suffocating urban geometry.

He had already established his own comic persona so well by then, in the figure of M. Hulot, that when he first appears—in the back half of a long shot from above (deep focus is often the mode in Play Time)—we recognize him instantly, his figure, his gait, his hat and pipe and coat. As it happens, by the time of Play Time Tati was tired of Hulot and thinking of retiring him, and so he plays much to the side of the action, swamped by the surging tides of modernity. At the same time, Tati decked out any number of other players in his hat and pipe and coat. The specter of M. Hulot thus becomes constant and a little nagging, which only fortifies the comic potential.

Part of the charm of this movie indeed is the vast distance it takes for its point of view, so remote as to be godlike. Most of the dialogue is incidental and as if overheard, an undertow of murmuring voices, merely a coequal counterpart to the constant hum of machines and drone of auto engines and traffic. Play Time drifts from an opening sequence at the Paris airport to scenes of a giant downtown office building, a trade show, apartment living at night, and finally climaxes in an extended scene in a nightclub—all told, brooding over a 24-hour period, morning to morning (with a luscious and pungent coda of mid-morning traffic wheeling slowly around roundabouts).

Hulot seen darting about at the sidelines is the one constant, along with a steady stream of small-scale sight gags and visual puns: a small room off a building lobby becomes an elevator, a ruined pedestal of a Roman / Greek pillar turns out to be a trash receptacle. Open and closed glass doorways and walls continually fool us and the people in the movie. Lamps and lights appear in strange places, often switched on and casting weird shadows. Nothing is exactly as it appears to be, except insofar as everything appears to be soulless.

Maybe this is obvious, but I take the title to mean something on the order of "goofing" or "riffing." Tati (who reminds me a little of James Stewart here, tall and shambling and amiable) enters a world he plainly derides as made up of equal parts drudgery and stupidity, and he plays. The deadening qualities of modernity are exaggerated—the apartment building offers its residents absurdly unprivate living, for example, with full-wall plate glass windows facing over the street. Seen from the street side by side and atop one another they are like television screens, and in each one there is a show going on (at one point involving all watching TV).

Behind all the sour view there is a good heart. Here's the tell. The movie is needlessly charming, charming for its own sake, with wonderfully warm music and humor, undercutting the general tone of disapproval. In one very funny sequence, a drugstore cafeteria in the middle of the night is lit by a buzzing green neon sign so bright everyone in there looks ill (it also looks in that moment like the famous green scene in Vertigo). Hulot vainly attempts in the sickly light to determine whether any of the food is actually edible, peering closely at it and smelling it, and finally decides he's not that hungry after all.

It's a very quiet movie but that is somewhat deceptive. The centerpiece is the long and elaborate scene in the chic new nightclub / restaurant, which builds up to a remarkable head of steam. It starts in early evening, as people are only beginning to filter in, works abundant gags over the fact that the place is newly designed and built and still has many flaws and problems, and eventually builds to a crashing crescendo as sections of the venue collapse entirely with the dance floor fully packed and people still waiting in line for a table. At one point the music performed at the club changes from '60s-era lounge to bop and the pace picks up accordingly. As the place itself falls apart the music has been reduced to drumming and a percussive discordant organ keyboard, but the dance floor is more packed than ever. "It's the same thing every night," says a bored patron as she leaves.

At about that point I realized how much I love Play Time. It's strange and wonderful, daffy and acerbic, a treat on practically every level of cinema: visual, sound, and, yes, even narrative, once you get the hang of what it's doing. I really hope I get to see it on the big screen one of these days.


  1. It didn't just leave me cold the first time (big screen)--I thoroughly hated it. I don't know that I've ever had such negative feelings about an acclaimed, famous film...probably, but I don't remember anything in particular. I suppose I should give it a second chance, but I can't imagine sitting through it again.

  2. Maybe this is NOT a movie that should always get a second chance!

  3. Curious as to what Steven thinks. When I expressed my antipathy on the message board a year or two ago, I don't remember anyone who felt the same way; the reverence for it was almost unanimous.