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PLAYTIME

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Jacques Tati
Director:  Jacques Tati
Audio:  Dolby Stereo
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio:  Criterion
Features:  See Review
Length:  124 Minutes
Release Date:  September 5, 2006

“Wait til you see how modern it is!”

Film ****

Playtime is like no other film you’ve ever seen or WILL ever see.  It’s sprawling and ambitious, yet sublimely personal.  There is no way to separate the vision from the man who dreamed it up.

Jacques Tati crafted Playtime as the third film to feature his indelible character, M. Hulot.  Each of the three films was a masterpiece, and each was singular and distinct in tone and style despite the anchoring presence of the angular and affable Hulot.  M. Hulot’s Holiday was charming and nostalgic.  Mon Oncle was warm and outrageously funny.  Playtime?  Hard to describe in words, unless you throw out ones like “alienating” and “detached”, which sound like condemnations.  Perhaps only an artist of Tati’s caliber could make alienating and detached so absorbing, endearing and unforgettable.

Each of the films seemed to reflect the constantly growing intrusion of the modern world.  If M. Hulot’s Holiday was like a classic postcard from another time, Mon Oncle showed the juxtaposition between old and new in comical light.  In Playtime, Paris is nothing but glass, chrome and steel.  Sterile floors stretch forever, and giant windows make everyone look like animals in a pet store.  There is no warmth in the architecture.  But there still manages to be some in the people, who live out their lives in this modern world with a kind of balletic play.

There’s no plot, just an attitude and a series of happenings.  Tati views the modern world with bemusement.  There may be a touch of regret for the old disappearing world, but he still finds much to embrace in the luxurious prisons we concoct for ourselves.

This point of view comes across in classic vignettes.  There’s the office building Hulot visits early on, with big cushioned chairs that seem to flatulate whenever someone sits on them.  There’s the Army buddy who invites Hulot into his apartment.  The whole scene plays from the street as we look in through the windows.  No dialogue, just the noise of the city.  As they watch the television set in the wall, it appears as though they and the occupants of the next room are really watching each other. 

And of course, the restaurant opening which is most of the second half of the film.  Everything goes wrong, but the more it does, the more fun the customers seem to be having.  A little chaos in a perfectly structured world can be cathartic.  For them AND for us.

Playtime was, for 1967, the most expensive French production ever undertaken.  The massive sets, the endless construction, the detail and the 70 mm photography in addition to the years it took to assemble and film took its toll on Tati’s financial situation.  When the movie was finally released, it did poorly.  Audiences used to the warm comedy of Hulot didn’t know what to think with this movie, in which Hulot plays a role no more significant than any other character, and in fact, many of his appearances turn out to be false sightings because he looks like so many other fellows wandering through the frames.

It’s all shot in long and medium shots.  No close ups.  No stories.  No developed characters.  All in all, it was the kind of film that put a lot of people off, particularly on first viewing.  As Roger Ebert remarked, you almost have to see the movie as a prerequisite for seeing the movie.  You have to watch it once to understand the kind of picture it is, because as I said, it doesn’t compare to anything else.  Then on repeated viewings, you’ll relax, study the frames, and enjoy the whimsical ballet of humanity against the modernity.

But that didn’t help Tati when his picture was released.  It failed, and Tati eventually lost everything: his home, his savings, his ownership of his own films.  He never recovered.  And he never really got to make another feature with complete creative control.

Sad how creative freedom can sometimes make and destroy an artist at the same time.  Playtime is one of the most savory films I’ve ever seen, and my second biggest ambition as a movie lover, after seeing 2001 on a big screen, is to see Playtime projected in 70 mm.  It’s a visual masterpiece; expressive, thoughtful and funny, and projecting warm feelings despite the cool look.  It cost Tati his past and his future, but I’d hate to envision a world where Playtime didn’t exist.

The more you watch it, the more you see in it, which is why it’s one of a small number of films I could watch over and over again without getting tired of it.  One shot says it all for me…a pretty American tourist enters into yet another glass and steel structure, and…what’s that she sees?  Reflected in the door as she opens it is the Eiffel Tower.  She looks off in the distance, but obviously can’t see where it’s coming from.  The old world has become a dream.  But she shrugs it off and proceeds to enjoy the rest of her time in this post-modern version of Paris.

And so do we.

Video ****

This new anamorphic transfer from Criterion is one of the best I’ve ever seen…Tati’s 70 mm vision has come to life in full digital glory.  The colors, textures and details are all incredibly sharp…every frame is filled with information, and nothing gets lost or muddled in the mix.  This was a visual delight from start to finish.  This is what DVD is all about, friends.

Audio ***

There are two stereo mixes to choose from:  the original French, and Tati’s own “international” version, which utilizes a bit more English.  The dialogue isn’t very consequential, so I actually recommend the international version:  it has a little more dynamic range and a little more spatial dimension.

Features ****

There are plenty of extras for your playtime with this double disc Criterion offering.  Disc One features a scene-select commentary from film historian Philip Kemp, which is actually quite informative and enjoyable.  As with the other Criterion Tati offerings, Terry Jones offers an amusing and fact-filled video introduction.

The second disc features a rare short documentary on Playtime featuring behind the scenes footage.  The shot of Tati throwing his script at one of his buildings as it was being demolished at the end of the shoot was priceless.  There is also a biographical film on Tati and a 1976 BBC program that has interview footage with Tati at the site of M. Hulot’s Holiday. 

Finally, there is an audio interview with Tati at the U.S. debut of Playtime in 1972 and “Cours du soir”, a short film he made at the same time Playtime was in production.

Summary:

Playtime is an original, inspiring and irreplaceable work of pure genius.  It is Jacques Tati’s third consecutive masterpiece, and even though his ambition led to a mighty fall both personally and artistically, all you have to do is look at this film to see Tati, like Icarus, taking a spectacular flight before getting too close to the sun and losing it all.

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