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Director: Jacques Tati Screenplay: Jacques Lagrange and Jacques Tati, additional English dialogue by Art Buchwalk
Jacques Tati’s “Playtime,” is clearly a masterpiece, but I think almost nobody can actually master it. According to film critic Noel Burch, “Playtime,” doesn’t just have to seen multiple times, but has to be seen from several different points in the theatre. The movie is all action, not in a “Die Hard,” action, but in terms of filling up the screen. To watch one thing, usually in the foreground, you can miss many things happening in the background, and vice-versa. The most expensive French film ever made up ‘til that point, the film’s box office failure would eventually bankrupt Tati. Tati is known as much as a performer as he is a director. His comedy is sly, that seems inspired by slapstick, but is actually more intrigued by sound effects and quiet observation. His most famous character is Monsieur Hulot, an exaggerated character, that is on par or equal such silent staples as Chaplin’s Tramp and Fatty Arbuckle’s Strong Man. His movies have sound, and often dialogue, but they basically act more like silent films. This was the second Hulot film of his I’ve seen, after “M. Hulot’s Holiday,” his first Directing project. Maybe the best Hulot film is, “Mon Oncle,” which earned him an Oscar for Foreign Language film. It’s easy to say that he’s overrated because his films once watched rarely if ever produced the laughs one would’ve expected. (I personally didn’t care much at all for “M. Hulot’s Holiday,” which is generally considered a classic.) But, he doesn’t go for big laughs. He goes for the small chuckles that make up actual human existence and not say the over-embellishment of such moments as say the Tramp getting sucked into the machine in his great film “Modern Times,” a film that’s one of few that “Playtime,” could possibly be compared to. Its anti-technology stance is reminiscent of the great French comedy, “A Nous la Liberte,” and anti-establishment like Milos Forman’s anti-Communist comedy “The Fireman’s Ball,” which got him kicked out of Czechoslovakia. The film also has a very long restaurant sequence where everything goes wrong and the worse the better. It seems plucked out of one of Bunuel’s high society farces like “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie,” and especially “The Exterminating Angel,” about guest who show up at a Dinner Party but can’t/won’t/don’t/forgot how to leave. If “Playtime,” wasn’t shot on the largest stage ever built, it was probably damn close to it. It takes place in a modern Paris where all the buildings are made of the cold blue steel and glass. So much glass, during one famous scene a guy asks for a cigarette light from another guy, not realizing he was on the other side of a large glass building. In another scene at a restaurant, a glass door is broken by M. Hulot, (Tati, most of the time) and a doorman, improvising by holding the door handle to an invisible door, and simply continues opening and closing as though it were there. There’s tours to see pictures of famous building, they even occasionally are shown in the reflections of the glass windows, but nobody can ever find where exactly the reflections come from.M. Hulot is probably the closest we get to a main character in the film, although unlike other films, his oversized pipe and coat, undersized pants, argyle socks and hunched walk is basically used as a somewhat recognizable figure to keep track of and/or observe. Even he isn’t entirely reliable, occasionally running into Hulot lookalikes. If I were to compare his character to any other literary character, at least for “Playtime,” he seems to serve the same service as Waldo from “Where’s Waldo.” He’s there, you’re looking for him, but there’s more action if you look around closely. There’s no plot, there’s too many characters to make note of any of them, but seemingly odd little thoughts bouncing around the screen, some more in focus than others, some funnier than others, others just throwaway vignettes. Tati almost seems to be playing around, giving us a visual representation of how his mind might work. “Playtime,” might have bankrupted him, but the film is one of those rare movies that has to be watched and placed in it’s own category outside the regular notions of genre. It’s rare to make a seminal movie such as “2001…” or “Citizen Kane,” or “Groundhog Day.” “Playtime,” isn’t just seminal, it’s more importantly a work that hasn’t even been repeated or replicated, probably never will. Thank goodness, I’m going to be mulling over this one for years anyway.