In Jacques Tati’s Playtime, it’s meaningless that the new 70mm print currently touring America is completely void of subtitles. It’s also meaningless that for long stretches, background noise frequently drones out any audible discourse. Why? Because Tati’s self-awareness of Playtime’s numerous subtexts creates a mesmerizing atmosphere that doesn’t require wordy sequences to explain them. A good portion of the dialogue is in English anyway, and the sparse amounts of it make Robert Bresson seem like Woody Allen in terms of verbose screenplays. Rather than verbally informing the viewer of Playtime’s point, Tati educates us with visuals and sound. There may not be a more vivid example of the power that a camera can hold—every scene of Playtime bustles with activity, to the point that one could easily catch new subtleties on their twentieth viewing.
Tati revisits his Monsieur Hulot from Mr. Hulot’s Holiday (1953) and Mon Oncle (1958), but Playtime really functions on a wholly different level: while those works were enjoyable and charming, Playtime sublimely tackles multiple themes, all of them socially fascinating. There’s a storyline, but it’s barely necessary: Monsieur Hulot, on business in Paris, finds himself overwhelmed by a nonstop barrage of technical advances and overall communal frenzy. It’s clear that Tati felt that the world was progressing too quickly for its own good when he made Playtime. It’s evident in the title—Tati had almost every piece of his Metropolis built, costing a fortune—and in how he portrays humanity as needing to calm down and relax. The dinner party, which encompasses the majority of the film’s final 45 minutes, ranks among the most extraordinary contrasts of lifestyles I’ve seen on celluloid. Like Luis Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel, the supper gradually disintegrates into mayhem, but unlike Buñuel’s film, Playtime isn’t about the degradation of the social hierarchy—rather, it outlines the oblivion that enshrouds the upper class. Small details run rampant: a doorman finds the glass in his door shattered, yet continues to open the empty space with the solitary doorknob, bowing to the exiting guests. Multiple patrons fail to notice that the back of their jackets—or even bare skin!—is imprinted with the chairs’ design. A drunken customer falls off his stool, then finds himself rolled into its legs and turned upside down. Playtime is full of wry humor—Tati’s enjoyment in making Playtime is as obvious as his concerns for its themes.
By casting himself as the bumbling Hulot, Tati makes it clear that he doesn’t consider himself to be above the world’s problems—he’s constantly causing unintentional disturbances—but astutely recognizes their existence. He emphasizes his self-understanding by frequently framing himself in the background—he doesn’t feel the need to hog the spotlight. When, early on, Hulot finds himself in the midst of an international expo—including Greek Statue trash cans & soundless doors—his befuddled awe (as an actor) is actually Tati the director mocking humanity’s obsession with industrial advances. Similarly, a sequence filmed from outside a building window indicates that Tati considers the population to have their noses pressed against the pane when it comes to understanding current events—they’re all on the exterior of comprehension, looking in. He mimics American idealism with the tour bus women’s ‘golly-gee, wow!’ attitude, and isn’t any easier on the French’s prim-and-proper persona. Using minimal music, Playtime’s sound editing is remarkable—footsteps, clanging dishes, squishy seat cushions, and control panel beeping highlight Tati’s appreciation for the little nuances that make us who we are. It’s too easy to forget in today’s boxed-in culture, something Tati frequently reminds us with compositions seen from outside glass windows or cubicles. The dialogue may be minimal, but it’s great when it shows up—upon seeing a presentation of the new vacuum cleaner (equipped with a light bulb for hard-to-reach nooks), one of the American tourists exclaims, “What a great idea! It’s a perfect gift for my maid.” Snazzy, but not as impressive as Tati’s ability to, nearly silently, paint a magnificent view of the universe, and its many flaws. Playtime is as daring and ambitious—and subsequently very difficult, and not for everyone—as any picture to come out of the 60’s. Nothing like it could ever be made today.