Jacques Tati created one of the most lauded comedic characters of all time in 1953 when Les Vacances de M. Hulot introduced the clumsy but lovable Monsieur Hulot. In Vacances, Hulot causes distress to the people on their month-long vacation in a small seaside resort, while gently lambasting the social types of the era, from the capitalists to the Marxists, each unable to escape their social role and relax. In 1958, Tati made his second outing as Monsieur Hulot inMon Oncle, which centers around his relationship with his nine month old nephew, and this time lampoons the post-war consumerism and the rush towards a more modern lifestyle, which conflicts with the old fashioned Hulot. Playtime did not come out until 1967, and was the most expensive French film until that time, filmed with 65mm film for an original 70mm release (tonight’s print is 35mm) and stuck in development for 9 years. Though a commercial failure which bankrupted its creator upon release, it is generally considered his masterpiece.
Jaded about the fact that his last two films were about a signature character, Tati wished to distance himself from Hulot. Although this picture features Hulot and a young pretty American in a tour group of middle aged women, it is less about Hulot and more about the interactions of the many colorful characters in this cold, modern Paris. Built as one humongous set, where glimpses of classic Paris like the Eiffel Tower are only seen in reflections of windows, the film is mostly plotless, and is made up of a handful of very long, meticulously choreographed sequences of physical comedy.
Like all of Tati’s comedies, Playtime is made in a style inspired by the pre-sound era, where the dialogue is in the background and often incidental to the plot. But much of the brilliance in the film is in the experimental sound editing, like in a long sequence in the middle of the film where Hulot visits a friend from the war’s apartment. The whole sequence is filmed from outside so we only hear the noises on the street and cannot hear any of the noises or dialogue taking place inside. There is also a trade exhibition where modern inventions are shown, including the door that slams “in golden silence,” which is perhaps a reference to the door in the hotel of Les Vacances de M. Hulot, where the sound effect of it swinging closed is absurdly loud to comedic effect.
The film culminates in one long brilliant sequence (which takes up almost the entire second hour of the film) within the brand new restaurant The Royal Garden. Here almost all the recognizable characters from earlier in the film are in one place: a very architecturally flawed establishment that is falling apart throughout the sequence. In the hands of almost any other filmmaker, an hour long physical comedy sequence all in one location with hardly any dialogue would drag on. But in the hands of Tati it is brilliantly compelling. This is not a joke-a-minute comedy that will have you laughing from start to finish. Instead, this is a comedy where you watch scenarios slowly unfold in a methodical and ingenious way created by a master filmmaker at his peak. In this day and age where it seems all major comedies are structured like filmed improvisations, Playtime feels very refreshing.
dir. Jacques Tati
Free screening, with introduction and discussion by Emerson professor Peter Flynn! Part of the ongoing series: Elements of Cinema
For screening information, click here