Director : Jacques Tati
Screenplay : Jacques Tati & Jacques Lagrange (English dialogue by Art Buchwald)
MPAA Rating : NR
Year of Release : 1967
Stars : Jacques Tati (Monsieur Hulot), Barbara Dennek (Young Tourist), Rita Maiden (Mr. Schultz’s Companion), France Rumilly (Woman Selling Eyeglasses), France Delahalle (Shopper in Department Store), Valérie Camille (M. Luce’s Secretary), Erika Dentzler (Mme. Giffard), Nicole Ray (Singer), Billy Kearns (Mr. Schultz)
In an article titled “The Death of Hulot” originally published in Sight & Sound in 1983, film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum gave Jacques Tati’s Playtime its most apt description: “the masterpiece that wrecked his career.”
A decade in the making and, at the time, the most expensive film ever made in France, Playtime is indeed a cinematic masterpiece, and it indeed ruined Tati financially. He would go on to make two more films, Trafic (1972) and Parade (1974), but neither would come close to touching the achievement of Playtime and its simple, yet profound, observations of human life in the increasingly alienating modern world.
Of course, it is impossible to fully appreciate Playtime without having seen the two films that preceded it, M. Hulot’s Holiday (1953), which introduced audiences to Tati’s near-silent screen clown Monsieur Hulot, and Mon Oncle (1958), which used Hulot as a peripheral character in a study of two competing worlds, the old and the new. Tati and his cinematic alter ego, Hulot, were both firmly rooted in the old world, symbolized in Hulot’s pleasantly rough working-class neighborhood.
Playtime is borne directly out of Mon Oncle, with the difference being that there is no longer a competition between the two worlds: The old has lost, and the realm of sterile modernization--of synthetic black chairs, glass and steel skyscrapers, and glossy waxed floors--has prevailed. The only glimpses of the old world we catch in Playtime are literally dim reflections in glass doors and windows. The rest of Paris has been subsumed by mindless progress and has devolved into an alien, but strikingly recognizable, futuristic cityscape.
Of course, the Paris in Playtime has never really existed. Built almost entirely on studio lots at great expense, the Paris we see here is a projection, Tati’s imagination of the worst possible outcome of modernization in which all remnants of the old--the fully human--have been wiped away in the pursuit of cleanliness, order, and convenience. For Tati, this meant the erasure of all that was wonderful about humanity, and he literalizes this in the film by filling the distant background of his shots with cardboard stand-ins for people that don’t do anything except take up space.
Like M. Hulot’s Holiday and Mon Oncle, Playtime has no real plot to speak of. Tati simply follows his hero, Monsieur Hulot--always recognizable in the crowd with his pleasantly goofy stride and signature raincoat, hat, umbrella, and argyle socks--over the course of a day in Paris. He is ostensibly there to make an appointment in an office building, but it never comes about because of a series of misadventures and accidents. He ends up running into some old friends, and eventually winds up in a polished high-class restaurant that is the epitome of posh blandness.
In Playtime, we can see Tati’s signature visual style reach the apotheosis of its subtle creativity. Few directors have ever reached the venerable auteur status with so few films to their credit (Tati only directly six features in his lifetime), yet few directors have been so unique and consistent in their cinematic vision as Tati. Playtime is composed almost entirely of static long and medium shots--there is not a single close-up to be found, and when the camera moves, it is usually a short dolly. Tati doesn’t draw attention to any one thing in the frame because there is always more than one thing going on (this is why his films demand multiple viewings).
Playtime is by far his most complex work in terms of mis en scene. This was Tati’s first use of widescreen, and he made the most of it, shooting the film in 70mm, the scope and detail of which gave him that much more of a canvas on which to work. His compositions are exquisite, deftly capturing the modern world and the people in it. There is no main character here; Hulot moves through the action, but he is rarely the center of attention. Rather, Tati’s camera is fascinated by interactions--interactions among people, interactions between people and their environment, and even interactions among various parts of the environment itself.
Tati constructs the modern world as nearly monochromatic--most of the architecture is glass and cold steel, but even the interiors are bland and gray, from the office building, to the restaurant, to his friend's apartment. It seems that what bothers Tati the most about modernism is the lack of contrast--the uniformity of the world. This is perhaps best realized in a throwaway sequence in a travel agency, where the posters on the wall advertise trips to Mexico, Hawaii, and Stockholm, yet each poster features a picture of an interchangeable glass office building. The modern disdain for the ancient is best represented in a scene in a shopping mall in which reproducible remnants of ancient Greece are turned in kitschy garage cans.
Tati keeps the film rolling with his unique brand of comedy, which by this point he had fine-tuned to a near-perfect art. Tati’s comedy is constructed of timing and composition. He doesn’t guide the viewer to the joke, but rather lets the viewer find it for him- or herself. Tati is also fond of running gags, such as the doorman who continues to hold out a door handle and act as though he is opening a plate-glass door even though Hulot broke it. There are moments of great hilarity scattered throughout Playtime, but mostly you just marvel at Tati’s invention and audacity. Playtime is certainly a masterpiece, and it can only be said that it is a shame that it wrecked Tati's career.
|Playtime Criterion Collection Special Edition Two-Disc DVD Set|
|Distributor||The Criterion Collection|
|Release Date||September 5, 2006|
|VIDEO & AUDIO|
|In all honesty, no one can claim that he or she has really seen Playtime unless it has been viewed in a theater in 70mm, as Tati originally intended (and I am proud to say that I can lay claim to that, having seen in during its revival at the Paramount Theater in Austin, Texas, in 2004). But, of course, with the rare exception of such a revival, the only way you can see it is on home video, and Criterion’s new Special Edition DVD is as good a home format as is possible. |
The transfer on this disc is so good, in fact, that it makes the previously available Criterion disc (which was released in 2001) look rather poor. Significant corrections include the removal of the slightly greenish tinge of the original transfer, as well as removing the cropping on all four sides of the image. The version of Playtime on the new DVD is also some four minutes longer than the previous edition.
Transferred in anamorphic widescreen from the 35mm reduction internegative and digitally restored, the image is gorgeous. Tati’s color scheme is virtually monochromatic, with blacks, whites, and grays dominating the frame for most of the film. There are occasional flashes of brilliant color--a red flower, a green dress, a bright blue bus--and these stand out beautifully. The use of the MTI Digital Restoration System has removed many of the imperfections of the previously available transfer, including quite a few vertical white lines that crop up from time to time and some speckling here and there. The new image is finely detailed and very sharp, which helps draw out Tati’s superb compositions and attention to every last nuance.
The version of Playtime presented here runs 124 minutes. When it originally premiered in 1967, the film was 155 minutes long, but Tati eventually edited it down to about two hours. In the liner notes of the original Criterion release, Kent Jones noted that no one knows the location of the 35 minutes that were cut, although in his article “The Death of Hulot,” Jonathan Rosenbaum noted that, as late as 1977, Tati still had possession of an original 70mm print of the 155-minute cut. It is a shame that much of that footage is now missing, as it would be fascinating to be able to compare Tati’s original vision with what he finally ended up with. Nevertheless, the version presented here is the one that was restored in 2002 and is the most complete version currently available.
All of Tati’s films are heavily reliant on their soundtracks, and the Dolby Digital two-channel stereo mix included here is excellent. The original 70mm version had six-track sound, but all the speakers were intended to be placed behind the screen, so I’m assuming the two-track stereo mix on the 35mm print best replicates the sound directionality Tati intended. This is an incredibly nuanced soundtrack, with depth, scope, and direction. Sound effects are abundant throughout, and certain scenes in Playtime are played out almost like musical setpieces. Unlike the original disc, this one includes an option of two soundtracks: the original French soundtrack and an alternate international soundtrack. There is not a lot of difference between the two because the film has so little dialogue; the international soundtrack simply uses more English.
|In addition to the improved image and sound transfers, Criterion’s new two-disc Special Edition of Playtime also (finally!) gives us a good range of supplements to go along with Tati’s masterpiece. It keeps the supplements from the original disc: a six-minute video introduction by ex-Monty Python member Terry Jones, who reminisces about his first time seeing the film and gives a few insights into its production, and Cours du Soir, a 1967 short film written by and starring Jacques Tati that, while amusing, is hardly his best work. |
The new supplements on the second disc include a selected scene audio commentary by film historian Philip Kemp, and the only complaint I can make about it is that I wish there were more. Kemp’s insights are intriguing and extremely informative, and I wish he had offered commentary over the entire 126 minutes, rather than just 45 minutes of it.
There are several brief documentaries included on the disc. “Au-delà de Playtime” is a short documentary featuring archival behind-the-scenes footage from the set of Tativille, including its unfortunate destruction. “Tati Story” is a short biographical film about Tati, which features rare archival photographs of him as a child and clips from all of his films. “Jacques Tati in Monsieur Hulot’s Work” is a 1976 episode of the BBC series Omnibus. Running about 45 minutes in length, it is composed primarily of a lengthy interview with Tati, part of which takes place in his office and part of which takes place at the hotel where he shot M. Hulot’s Holiday (it’s a real treat to see how little it had changed from the early ’50s to the mid-’70s). There is also about 14 minutes of an audio interview with Tati from the U.S. debut of Playtime at the 1972 San Francisco International Film Festival. Finally, there is an 11-minute video interview with Sylvette Baudrot, a long-time script supervisor who worked with Tati on three of his films, including Playtime.
Copyright ©2006 James Kendrick
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