Retro Film Review: Playtime
George Papakosmas takes a look back at French filmmaker Jacques Tati’s 1967 film Playtime.
Ten years passed before filmmaker Jacques Tati was able to secure funding for his 1967 masterpiece of modernist French cinema PlayTime, and it isn’t any wonder why; it was the most expensive film in the country’s history at the time, shot on (for want of a better word) a “Tativille” wonderland – a backlot that consisted of a decidedly antiseptic airline terminal, high-rise buildings, offices, city streets and a traffic oval, all to serve an altogether non-existent plot. It is, in essence, a film about everything, and nothing. Instead of a story arc or formal narrative it has a cataract of incidents, and in the place of a main character or “hero” and his supporting players is a varied troupe of thousands, so that PlayTime isn’t so much an acting ensemble as a film with extras.
The opening shot of the movie does surprisingly little in “establishing” exactly where we are. A long, cavernous, superficially-lit beast of a room with a shiny floor, that could be the lobby of a banking giant, or perhaps a hospital, but is revealed to be part of a French airline terminal in later shots. This single wide-angle long take remains stationary for some two minutes, and in all this time we aren’t told, or “guided”rather, to the character or characters we should focus on. Instead, we see the quintessential quibbling couple seated camera-left, who turn in unison to observe two nuns walking past; then a waiter or chef; then a man in a suit; then a swarthy cleaner resplendent in blue; then a general (or perhaps, pilot); then a nurse carrying towels; then a woman rushing off screen and finally a mother pushing a red tweed-lined pram. It’s interesting to note that when the nurse comes into the shot she is accompanied by the sound of a screaming baby somewhere off screen which adds to the perception (here in the beginning) that we might be in some kind of strangely silent hospital. This scene is testament to the enervation that a film like Tati’s requires from its audience. PlayTime is just that; a cinematic maze of movement and people and things that we must actively participate in; a cacophony of noise, and locations, and montage, where words are spoken over each other and are in some occasions slurred or altogether inaudible. In other words: PlayTime is life. It is, by and large, a scrapbook of ordinary scenes displayed in a heightened kind of reality where anything goes. (Take for the example the window-cleaning scene, where as the pane goes up and down, so does the bus reflected through the glass and, with girlish ‘oohs’ and ‘ahhs’, the women inside.) Tati leaves it to us to see the film how we like, and PlayTime is that kind of picture show that demands repeated viewings; we are sure to notice something new and comical in the corner of a shot that we didn’t see the first time round. As critic David Kehr puts it, “We have to roam the image – search it, work it, play with it.”
When lighting a scene, a cinematographer will create highlights and shadows to steer our attention to the foreground or background of a frame. The airport lobby scene in PlayTime is lit in so bright a fashion that everything we see looks like it might belong to a bizarre (albeit very retro) futuristic chimera. It resembles an elaborate dentist’s office. You can practically smell the prophylactic. But there are no shadows here; just an assortment of key lights on the booths and fillers shining down from the ceiling. We can see the man in his black suit in the extreme background of the frame enter and exit the screen clear and shadowless. We notice the stubborn stray hairs on the foreground-man’s balding head, and the lines that form under his wife’s chin as she cranes her head around to ogle at Mr Pilot With The Ominous Walk.
Costume designer Jacques Cottin seems here to have followed a single-word brief from Tati: “bland”. Every character that walks through the lobby in this scene does so sporting clothing that is classic and very “vanilla”. The women standing by the large windows in the back of the frame are wearing little black skirts and knit sweaters, while the lady in the grey dress rushes for a flight in sensible black shoes; Mr and Mrs sit in matching shades of Prussian; Nurse, of course, is in white; and Cleaner is in blue. Cottin’s colour palette is quite neutral, seemingly to emphasise the monotony of waiting in an airport. Compared to the shots that follow where a beehive of people try to navigate through security, then Administration, then more lobbies, followed by more people – this establishing shot is tame and slow-paced. Tati’s editing choices are unconventional – long takes, marred with short shots – and so PlayTime runs as a mess of one shot on top of another with little regard to continuity in some cases. (When Tati’s alter ego Mr Hulot inspects a curious-looking lobby chair, the camera observes him outside the glass room, then inside, then outside, then at another angle inside, and so on. As we jump in and out of the room with the camera, the whirring sound of a far- off machine is magnified then dulled accordingly, adding to the raucous; it appears Tati is no longer concerned with telling a story, even a short one of a man prodding a chair, but instead is having more fun playing around with shot composition in the editing room.)
In the absence of a lavish musical score, natural sounds become characters of their own in PlayTime. The stomp of crowds, the sputter and roar of car engines, the drone of the machine we mentioned above; or, in some places, the lack of sound. Tati’s comedic timing shines early on in a lobby scene (where a security guard with way too much mileage steals the show); the man Hulet is waiting for saunters down the hallway for forever and a day, and Tati roots the camera in one position so that all we see, and more importantly hear, is the man’s footfall on the marble. Footwear also echoes loudly in Tati’s establishing shot: the quick pitter patter of the grey woman’s sensible shoes as she hurries to catch her flight; the commanding stomp of the pilot; the cleaner’s drag and turn; or the “whoosh” of the nun’s oddly-shaped habits… And penetrating it all are the voices of the couple. If nothing else, PlayTime is a myriad of details. Tati’s wife character doesn’t say anything particularly important or interesting; more casual observations to her husband. This shot makes us sit up and watch closely, to see what happens next. Or who enters next. And from which side of the frame. The sounds act like a per-curser; we hear the clatter of knives and forks long before the chef emerges from a side-corridor. That these sounds might have been dulled in any other movie to focus exclusively on, say, the married couple’s conversation is part of the charm of Tati’s offering; he reduces life to a complete urban mayhem of noise, noise and more noise. Which is really what it is, in the long run. Every character provides their own individual noise to form a collective hullabaloo.
In the end, PlayTime is a film both capricious and harshly modern, with a terrifically Orwellian view of the urban landscape in some places – and considering it took the auteur four years and an astonishing 7 million francs to deliver it to an albeit unsympathetic audience at the time, one can only imagine how many walk-in shots and hustles here and bustles there ended up on the cutting room floor. Take out all the over-editing and the avant-garde set design and the impersonal landscape, and at its core is a man’s observations about the world around him. A moving image through his eyes. Call it post-modern or surrealistic, odd or classically “French”, PlayTime remains completely Tati-ian – and a beast like no other.