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Monday, August 18, 2008

Movie Review: Tati's Playtime Fascinates

Movie Review by Noah Mallin

Jacques Tati gave everything he had to 1967’s Playtime, at the time one of the most expensive movies ever made in France. For his trouble it was a commercial failure and a mixed-bag critically, closing the door on Tati’s reign as the master of postwar French comedy. Seen today on the new Criterion Collection remaster (or as Terry Jones points out, ideally in 70 mm) Playtime emerges as a unique masterpiece. It’s one of those movies that makes you laugh sometimes and you’re not even sure why.

It’s really three films in one, the first being an extended riff on modernist architecture as a tool of control. Yes it’s funny, and strange, and off-putting and fascinating and wistful. It’s like being raped by the Seagram’s Building. The mid section takes the anomie into a home patterned on the same show-all principles as the mid-century workplace. It’s the most alienating part of the film as the sound is entirely provided from the outside, as is the perspective. Part three is an elaborate farce set in an ultra-modern restaurant/nightclub – where people play. The external regimentation and behavioral modification imposed by the architectural style of the restaurant is gradually undermined by the increasingly anarchic people who interact with it.

This is heady stuff but it’s often breathtaking. The movie loosely follows a gaggle of American women tourists in group visiting Paris. What they are shown are a series of shopping opportunities in international style settings that could be buildings and hotels anywhere in the world. The “real” Paris is the flower seller on the corner who one woman tries to photograph - only to be foiled by French kids dressed like American greasers, Japanese tourists, and finally a fellow American who wants to take her picture while she’s taking the shot. The poor woman keeps getting puzzling glimpses of Parisian landmarks like the Eiffel Tower reflected in opening doors and advertising posters but she’s trapped with her group in these steel and glass boxes.

Tati’s alter-ego M. Hulot is on hand weaving his way through the film reflected by look-alikes and mistaken for others. Just as the glassy buildings all reflect and refract images into multiples and duplicates Hulot is multiplied and duplicated. His unsuccessful attempt to keep an appointment is marked by elegant chrome and leather chairs that mimic gastrointestinal distress when they are sat on and a stunning vision of cubicle anticipating box-like offices on an open floor as seen from above – the kind of image Terry Gilliam built a career on.

There are other gags that imbed themselves in the cerebellum to be unpacked later – this is an incredibly dense film full of widescreen imagery with very few close-ups and a full busy frames. During Hulot’s visit to his old Army buddies apartment a man undresses obliviously in full view of the street through his windowed wall. We watch him through the glass at the same time we can see his female neighbor through her glass wall staring at her TV in interest. The witty framing makes it looks as if she’s watching her neighbor strip avidly.

The restaurant sequence features several giddy highpoints. A plate glass door shatters but the doorman keeps holding the knob and opening and shutting the “door” for patrons, the air conditioning makes a woman’s skin ripple like silk, a model airplane wilts like a Freudian nightmare.

The cinematography is luscious, as much as Tati is musing over the spaces we create and how they hem us in; he’s also as seduced by the Mies Van Der Rohe style buildings against the sky, the way the lights wink on at dusk, the sleek lobbies and furniture. The colors are steel grays, navy blues, myriad tones of slate – all of which sound like they’ll be flat but they vibrate with the intensity of a shimmering pool. The production design is never over-the-top. The same crested chair backs that look so cool when you first see them in the restaurant end up leaving crest imprints on the backs of men’s jackets. It’s a wonderful sly joke in a world where life was becoming increasingly production designed.

It’s intriguing and perhaps overly determinist to look at the film through the prism of the riots that would rock France and many other countries the following year. Like the patrons in the restaurant who begin to dissemble the architecture to make their own reality and who obediently dance to whatever tempo the band plays society feels like it teeters on the edge by the end of Playtime.

The last, short sequence of vehicles caught in a roundabout, with a carnival like tune playing on the soundtrack and a woman bobbing up and down on a motorcycle like a little girl on a carousel horse is delightful and haunting at the same time. Everything is restored to its manmade orderliness and controlled chaos, all of the machines and buildings and buses are children’s toys, designed by children with the arbitrariness of youth.

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