“Playtime” is the third Tati film on the List, following “Mon Oncle” from 1958. I loved “Mon Oncle” as I also liked “Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot” and so I was expecting great things from “Playtime”.
This time Monsieur Hulot, Tati’s character, is visiting an ultra-modern environment in Paris. First there is an airport, cool, straight and soulless. Then we visit an office building in glass and steel with cubicles, uniformed attendants and everything kept in grey and black tones. Hulot is visiting this place to ask for a job, but he keeps missing the man he is supposed to meet and in this extremely streamlined place Hulot sticks out like a sore thumb.
Hulot proceeds to a trade fair where he keeps being mistaken for being someone else. He is invited into an apartment home where his host is intent on showing off their material wealth and finally, he ends up in a fancy restaurant, the Royal Garden.
Meanwhile a tourist woman, following a tour group, visits more or less the same places and their paths cross each other a few times.
This is not much of a story, but that is also the point. With “Playtime” Tati was apparently rebelling against the idea that a movie needs a screenplay. “Playtime” is a series of tableaux on the modern world alienating humanity and the progression through the movie is not that of a story, but the gradual breakdown of the streamlined world into a human world.
This unique and innovative idea is what makes “Playtime” special. It is its strength and it is its weakness. Tati gives himself the freedom to compose exactly the scenes he wants, letting his Hulot character stand in contrast to the uniformity of modern life. That means we get a fairly complete vision and many of these tableaux are truly interesting. But it is also its fundamental problem. This is a 119 minute long movie without a story. How long can you actually watch scenes where nothing is actually happening? Sure, this is a comedy, and Hulot is charming, many of the scenes are curious, but few are outright funny, at least until we get to the restaurant in the end where the movie enters into slapstick. Yet this restaurant scene is 45 minutes long! It has to be tremendously funny to be worth that long a watch. ¨
This does make me strangely torn on this movie. I had to break it up in pieces not to get bored, yet many of the scenes are truly brilliant. I cannot for the life of me see why the restaurant scene has to last 45 minutes, yet it is magnificent. Much of what is great in this movie are in the small details. Guests sitting in the restaurant get a stamp on their backs from the poorly designed chairs, the doorman holds a doorknob to pretend there is a door after it is gone, the dishes the restaurant serves are all the same and the food never leaves the trays. Much of this is not laugh out loud funny, but comical in a quieter way. That is nice, but is it good enough to carry you through so long a movie without a progressing story?
I get the criticism of modern life and it is well placed and executed. It is visionary in scale and style, with enormous and expensive sets built for the movie. Apparently, Paris did not yet at the time of filming have such a neighborhood, Tati built it from scratch. I just wonder if Tati is not shooting sparrows with cannons here and thus over-do it.
I must recommend this movie, it is one to have seen at least once, but personally I much preferred “Mon Oncle”.