“Playtime” is a perfect refinement and evolution of Tati’s skills and concerns as a filmmaker. The visual comedy of “Jour de Fete” being refined into telling a more ambitious story, Monsieur Hulot from “Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday” used appropriately as a vehicle for storytelling instead of just a source of gags, the anticonsumerist themes of “Mon Oncle” evolving into something beyond simple satire. Everything Tati had shown himself to be good at is distilled and sharpened. To see a comedy film (essentially a plotless one at that) with such ambition is remarkable – the use of 70mm, the stunningly enormous sets, the innovative (at the time) creative utilisation of stereophonic sound, the nuanced cinematography, it’s almost jarring to see a comedy be so masterful, but genre labels aside, it’s a masterwork of a film in any case.
So much of the film is about how context, elaboration, communication begets empathy and happiness in contrast to how rigidity, close-mindedness, and isolation encourage anxiety and negativity. The earlier sequences of the film abound in straight lines and angles, cold and clustered interior design, cold and uniform architecture. Everyone driving the same cars, in the same clothes, walking the same way, in the same rush, to the same cubicles (in straight lines, of course). Paris is barely seen apart from glimpses, posters, reflections, instead looking just like another nondescript city, like all the travel posters and their identical advertisements for various cities (apart from a tacky icon in a corner). But the film moves from straight lines to curves, from the afternoon of one day to the morning of another, and it ends in a joyous celebration of the absurdity of modern life and the city itself, with traffic moving in a jaunty dance around and around, set to circus styled music. Is it the city that’s transformed, or the perspective of the characters and the viewer?
Tati himself stressed he wasn’t trying to simply condemn or satirise the city, the architecture of time, or the modern condition – “My job is not to rubbish the architecture, I’m there to try and defend the individual and the personality that is his”, “I am not at all against modern architecture, I only think that as well as the permit to build, there should also be a permit to inhabit”, “If I’d been against modern architecture, I’d have shown ugly buildings”. The film isn’t just transformation, it’s recontextualisation. The characters manage to actualise their own transformations – Barbara turning Hulot’s gift of square fabric into a round shawl, the patrons of the restaurant going with the flow of the mayhem and finding a good time amongst the chaos and breakdown of propriety, Hulot and the businessmen transcending what could have been just an annoying miscommunication and instead happily finding each other. They find the curves amongst the straight lines. Paris isn’t necessarily transformed from a cold, rigid place, as reframed and reinterpreted as a warmer, more open one. The carousel of cars is still a slow procession of traffic, but the “transformation” from fun to medium is in the eyes of the characters and the viewer.
As Tati said, “Playtime’s plot was a movement from straight lines to curves. In the first part of Playtime, I direct the people to follow the architect’s guidelines. Everybody is filmed as if moving in straight lines and feeling prisoners of their surroundings. Modern architecture would like typists to sit straight, would like everyone to take themselves very seriously. In the first part of the film, the architecture plays a leading role, but gradually warm, contact and friendship, as well as the individual I defend, take over this international setting and then neon advertisements make their entrance and the world starts to swirl and it all ends up in a merry-go-round. There are no more straight angles at the end of the film”.
Indeed, the characters transcend “feeling prisoners of their surroundings” in embracing the irony, absurdity and humour of such a naturally chaotic people (humans in general) attempting such regimented order, their empowering overcoming of the lunacy and cold pragmatics of modern technology, lifestyles and architecture, and through overcoming the physical and social barriers discouraging connection and open communication. Rather than explore essentially identical tours of what become superficially identical cities, one tourist sets out on her own and experiences Paris in its unique spirit. For a film so cold and cool in colour tones, emulating black and white, her green dress a rebuke to the austere colour scheme of the restaurant and its inhabitants. And Hulot and the businessman, rather than succumb to being frustrated by a communication mishap and going on their ways annoyed and dismissive, they embark on absurd adventures to try and settle things with each other, and end up doing just that in a splendidly serendipitous way.
It would have been so easy for the businessman to just become an arrogant busybody to Hulot, and Hulot an irritating fool to the businessman, but for the viewer, seeing the businessman’s efforts and eventual home life humanise him, and Hulot’s attitude and eventually successful pursuit of him overcome that easy initially negative view as well. Reframing from further context begets empathy, it’s baked into the film at every level. Barbara initially seems an annoyingly flighty tourist, but by the end of the day the viewer is more inclined to see her as a fun, humane figure more interested in connections of the moment rather than the superficial trappings of the holiday (see how taken she is by the reflection of the Eiffel Tower in glass in comparison to her insistence for more rigid photo opportunities). Of course, the restaurant scene is the clearest demonstration of a cold and stiff sterile setting being transformed into a hot and messy chaotic one, but actually being seen as more fun and inviting for all that, as the patron’s embrace the change and transcend the rigidity of the setting and their lifestyles.
Glass is such a key motif in the film, not just when it serves as a reflection of the Eiffel Tower to Barbara, but for all the many visual gags centred around it – the windowcleaner’s movement of glass making the reflected bus travellers seem to be moving up and down in some sort of rollercoaster (fun found through recontextualisation), Hulot and the businessman’s run-ins with glass doors they failed to acknowledge, a guard appearing to rudely wave away a worker asking for light revealed to be him merely gesturing towards the glass door so he could actually get to him (context begetting empathy), so many gags set around the way glass and reflections reframe visuals to the viewer. Glass is literally the invisible social barrier, so clearly demonstrated when the restaurant’s glass door is broken and the appearance of a handle is enough to fool patrons into buying in to its existence.
This idea of transformative recontextualisation is so deeply embedded into the film that viewers themselves cannot “fully” experience the film in one viewing. So enormous and expansive is the frame, the usage of 70mm, the staging of scenes in all their long shot glory (never a close-up, with the stereophonic placement of audio cues being Tati’s method to draw attention to a certain occurrence instead) that it’s impossible for the viewer to take in the entirety of what’s going on in so many scenes. In his earlier films, Tati pitched dialogue at the same level as ambient sound, a sort of cinematic equaliser and repudiation of the so-called higher importance of plot and dialogue (in a visual medium no less). But in “Playtime”, ostensible lead Hulot himself is relegated to being just another background figure, not even truly a chief character (with Barbara sharing at least as much screentime), and barely ever foregrounded in the frame. He is “insignificant”, like the viewer, an easy avatar for how swallowed up and powerless one can feel in modern society. But given context, finding human connections despite the rigidity baked into society (and reframing much of that rigidity to find the humour and joy in it as well), Hulot heroically transcends such “powerlessness”, or rather finds joy despite it.
When we see, from the street, families watching televisions in their near-identical homes, it looks like a joke at how they seem to be interacting with each other, but in truth are just uniformly reacting to their televisions. But are they truly alone? Hulot finds connection and warmth with one such family, and when both he and the businessman leave such homes, they manage to find each other and transcend the miscommunication causing so much of the mayhem in the first half of the film. It’s easy to get lost in a modern world, but mindfulness and an open mind makes things seem rather different indeed.
Crucially, the film stays focused on the mundane and focuses on finding the beauty and glory in it, rather than extrapolating outwards to the fantastic or the boisterously exaggerated. It’s notable the film takes place nearly entirely in public spaces – even the sequence where we see Hulot’s old friend’s home (and his neighbour’s) is filmed from the perspective of the public street outside. If the “main character” of the film can’t even manage to get a close-up or any notable dialogue, they serve much better as an audience avatar in the actual majority of their time commuting and working, instead of drinking in power fantasies in the cinema. Tati’s use of cinema here invites the viewers to move from viewers to participants, in how they have to actively engage with the frame in an optic dance not unlike the cavorting of the restaurant patrons, in how they’re invited to recontextualise and reform their own opinions as more and more context is revealed to the characters and settings of the film, and in the questions and messages the film engages in regarding society and the human condition.