Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The latest older disc release in the Criterion Collection to be given a retrofit is Jacques Tati's uniquely ambitious Playtime, a gigantic and somewhat indescribable near-silent comedy that spreads out across the wide screen like a gigantic magazine illustration. Originally filmed in 70mm, a format reserved for epic spectacles with broad audience appeal, Playtime instead creates a teasingly complex tale of humans existing in a whimsical environment of modern architecture. Tati built several football fields' worth of city streets and glass and steel buildings, one of the largest and most complicated sets ever conceived. The result is a cross between Modern Times and 2001: A Space Odyssey, a gargantuan comedic rumination on modern living.
Criterion's new and improved transfer reflects the work of a 2002 70mm restoration project that returns five minutes of recovered material; a half-hour of the original movie is still unaccounted for. The extras for this new edition are a show-and-tell session explaining the sometimes-incredible particulars of the filming and Tati's subsequent career troubles.
Monsieur Hulot (Jacques Tati) arrives in Paris to take a business meeting with Mr. Lacs (John Abbey) and ends up mixing with store buyers and American tourists in an enormous indoor wholesaler's showroom. Confused and disoriented in the maze of glass buildings, sales-floor cubicles and other modern trappings, Hulot doesn't connect with Mr. Lacs. A German salesman (Reinhard Kolldehoff) mistakes Hulot for an annoying customer, and indeed, there are several 'false Hulots' adding to the confusion. Hulot also bumps into several old pals from the Army, one of whom invites him home to a strange apartment building with large glass windows that display everything happening inside. Finally, another Army pal snags Hulot and invites him to the chaotic opening night of a new restaurant, the Royal Club, where workmen have barely finished with the decor and the staff isn't yet broken in. A pleasant American woman (Barbara Denneck) comes with a group of tourists, as well as the German salesman, and the evening in the Royal Club becomes one inspired disaster after another. At the dawn, Hulot wants to say goodbye to his new American acquaintance, but the city interferes once again.
Playtime has to be the most elaborate experimental film ever made, a mime-driven silent comedy on a lavish scale. Comedic genius Jacques Tati could easily have come up with another modest Hulot comedy but opted instead to create a giant world in which he could control every detail, from the smallest prop to the skyscrapers on the next block. The 70mm frame is used to hold large, deep spaces in focus, allowing us to view the entire floor plan of an office building or a restaurant and observe several developing gags happening concurrently. There are no close-ups and most shots hold full human figures, if not twenty people at a time.
Tati makes us find the movie for ourselves, almost as in the illustration book "Where's Waldo?" The show opens on a waiting room that at first appears to be a hospital, but is later revealed to be an airport. While we wait for the distinctive Hulot to appear in his raincoat, slouch hat, pipe and signature walk, a similarly dressed man doing Tati's familiar mime throws us off the scent. The people in the airport, on the streets and in the office buildings are often given equal emphasis, forcing us to figure out who the main characters are. At first, we can't even tell if we're watching intentional gags, or if the movie is even a comedy. Dialogue is minimized and becomes part of the ambience; we watch the film as we would a silent movie.
Building an entire cityscape allows Tati to control every detail of a complex world. We soon realize that even random-looking activities are carefully directed and staged, especially when the satire 'warms up' and more overtly comic situations appear. The modern glass buildings place people in transparent cages, or make them seem close when they're really separated by glass walls. Later in the film, Hulot accidentally breaks a glass door, which leads to a seemingly endless variety of 'miming the missing door' gags.
Critics note that Tati's glass and steel Paris only occasionally reveals the tourist Paris we expect. The Eiffel Tower apears only momentarily in a door reflection, but a symmetrical gag later on gives us a glimpse at what appears to be the Taj Majal. 1 Other critics think that Playtime expresses an apocalyptic vision of man overtaken by his own architecture, but the film is far too optimistic for that. By the time the sun sets and the absurdly unprepared Royal Club opens its doors, even the worst plans end up redeemed by human resilience and dumb luck. The restaurant sequence is practically an hour long but its slapstick and conceptual humor never lets up as the harried waiters try to maintain the illusion of service for their patrons. Just as the evening threatens to become a high-tech fiasco, Hulot accidentally brings down half the ceiling, and the inebriated patrons regroup to enjoy a more intimate and friendly gathering. The rich man becomes a generous clown and Hulot finds a pleasant female companion, if only for a few hours.
In the morning the tourists' return to the airport turns Tati's city into an abstract playground, with a traffic circle transformed into a carousel and visual harmonies turning man's modern machinery into moving poetry. The world is not destroyed, but re-invented in new patterns of delight.
Criterion's new disc of Playtime is a definite improvement on the old encoding. Fans that have seen 70mm screenings claim that no DVD could replicate the experience, leading us to wonder if this might be a perfect Hi-Def offering, should Criterion ever make the jump to the new format. On a large projection television we can certainly appreciate the film's expanse, and the film's visual subtleties can be blamed if we miss an individual joke here or there.
Terry Jones' Video introduction is repeated from the earlier disc; he still points out a gag or two that slip by us, like the illusion that the Royal Club waiter is watering the flowered hats of the American tourists. A 'selected scene' commentary appears to be a separate encoding of scenes to back up the analytic observations of historian Philip Kemp. His thoughts and an insert essay by the adaptable Jonathan Rosenbaum give us a quick overview of the unique production. An alternate international soundtrack plays on default; the original French track has less English but both tracks treat most of the film's dialogue as superfluous.
Disc two has two new documentaries. Au-delà de "Playtime" is an all-too brief assemblage of behind-the scenes footage showing the construction of the huge sets and Tati working with actors. He demonstrates everyone's part by "pre-miming" all of the action, even donning a skirt and wig to play a woman. The giant skyscrapers in the background are revealed to be large forced-perspective models, thirty and forty feet tall.
Tati Story is a rather scattered biographical piece on the director which sometimes becomes confusing when film clips are used out of context. It does give us glimpses of Tati's visionary breakthrough feature Jour de fete, which was shot in an experimental color process. Its first release had to be in B&W, because the chemists couldn't make a practical color print stock for the film! The director had certain items in the film -- flags, etc. -- hand tinted for a later release, and only after Tati's death in the 1990's was a true color release possible.
A third new item is an interview with Sylvette Baudrot, the script supervisor for Playtime. Backed by film clips, her memories illustrate Tati's unusual practices, like using full-sized cut-out pedestrians to fill-in backgrounds and save on extras.
The supplements disc also gives us several prime research sources. A 1976 BBC television program interviews Tati, and audio recordings cover his appearance at the 1972 San Francisco International Film Festival. The final extra is Cours de soir (night school), a short subject from 1967 in which Tati plays an actor presenting a class on pantomime. Tati trips on his way to the podium, and tells his students that that 'trick' will be discussed later in the class.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Supplements: Video introduction by Terry Jones, Selected scene commentary by Philip Kemp; Alternate international soundtrack; Docu using behind the scenes footage from the film; Docu biography on Jacques Tati; 1976 BBC TV show featuring interviews with Tati; Tati audio interviews from 1972 Film Festival; Video interview with script supervisor Sylvette Baudrot; Cours de soir, 1967 Tati short film.
Packaging: Two discs in plastic and card folder, in card box
Reviewed: August 20, 2006
Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.
1. A note from David Cairns, 9.04.06: Hi -- Thanks for a great site and great reviews. Gotta call your attention to two oddities in your Playtime review. The second building reflected in a glass door is not the Taj Mahal but le Sacre Coeur, another Parisian landmark which has a more naturalistic reason for being there. I quite like the idea of the Taj Mahal turning up, but Tati kind of does that joke with the travel agency posters which all show international monuments dominated by uniform skyscrapers...
And I can't agree with any description of Playtime as a resembling a silent movie. Of course I agree that dialogue plays an unusually limted role, but sound is hugely important throughout, there are gags based solely on sound effects and entire scenes that depend entirely on a complex interplay between sound and image. On the whole, sound effects play a much greater role in the film than in traditional talkies, where LANGUAGE plays a key role but sound and music often hardly matter.
Anyhow, sorry to quibble but the site is so great it deserves niggly feedback -- it's too good to let imperfections pass! best, David Cairns
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson