Thursday, September 30, 2004

Playtime Directed by Jacques Tati

Certain films have the potential to be ruined if analyzed too closely. Not that they collapse under the magnifying glass, or that there is analyzable material lacking; no, it's that certain films have such charm, such charisma, that to approach from an angle too analytical is to lose sight of the spirit of the film. Jacques Tati's 1967 Playtime is one such film. With that in mind, I'll now get down to a rather dry, didactic reading of the film. Bear in mind this: I absolutely cherished this film and, just as importantly, seeing it on the big screen. I smiled and laughed - no amount of arid analysis can compare to that.

Tati set his film in a see-through Paris, where it seems that everything is made of glass. The "set", consisting of several large (read: 10+ story) buildings, was fabricated specifically for the film - largely out of Tati's own pocket. Because of this, Tati suffered financial ruin for the next ten years. Smacking of some well-deserved pride, the set came to be known as Tativille. What it meant to the director was a realized dream. What it means to the characters of the film is something different entirely. Monsier Hulot, Tati's alter ego, self-acted star of Mon Oncle and M. Hulot's Holiday, makes a reappearance in Playtime. It seems that the stately gentleman with the identifiable-from-across-the-street gait is revisiting Paris; that is, he has been here before. But this is not Hulot's Paris. Even though other people recognize him and accept him as their own, Hulot is clearly out of his element. He finds Paris to be a completely revamped, streamlined, and utterly inefficient carapace of its former self. The see-through doors are collided with, imagined, and, most effectively, used to reflect images of Paris past. Hulot seems to yearn for the Eiffel Tower, a symbol of the old Paris, but the only time he (and the audience) sees the icon is in the reflection of a glass door. Alas, Old Paris is contained, and even then merely reflected, within New Paris. And New Paris is hardly Paris at all: a tourist gazes at a series of posters showing vacation destinations. Hawaii, America, Paris, London - the names are right but the images are not. Rather than icons of these places, the posters contain identical images of the plasticine building that herself and Hulot are perplexed by. The only difference between the four destinations is their costumes - stage dressing such as palm trees, cowboys, and royal guards used to cover up the alarming influence of the modern while issuing a faux-echo of the past.

And this leads to the theme of the doppelganger. Nothing in this confounding Paris is unique or original. It all seems to point to the mundanity of life and the stagnant boredom of those involved with said life. Four men dressed in four identical suits pile into four identical cars and drive away in an identical fashion. They all carry the same identical countenance - blank indifference. Even M. Hulot, the most unique and bewildered of men is not unique. Several times throughout the film others young, old, and in between, with jackets and steps similar to Hulot's, are mistaken for the man himself. Admittedly, this could be positive as well as negative. It could be that the future is not entirely bleak - there will always be a Hulot out there to inspire originality. Or it could simply mean that Hulot is being swallowed by modernity along with everyone else.

That is essentially the first half of the film. It focuses on the hilarity of the predictability in modern life and the denizens' utter boredom. The second half is a far different beast. It is centered on life as a circus - how we are a comical species and how our modern inventions only further complicate life rather than simplifying it. The axis for this carnivalesque dissection is one of the greater setpieces in film history: a brand new hipster oriented restaurant. Monsieur Hulot saunters in, not knowing what he is getting into.

The restaurant is not quite finished: the neon lights flicker in random patterns, the tile on the dance floor is hardly secure, and the air conditioning system is non-functioning. As the patrons slowly filter in, the show begins. Tati, who also co-wrote Playtime, layers joke upon joke, allowing them all to build until they burst open in wave after wave of cacophonous hilarity. A glass door shatters, but no bother - to keep up appearances (imperative in this modern world) a man grabs the door handle off of the ground and proceeds to play-act the opening of the "door" for converging and diverging patrons. Drunken waiters over-season an entree for the wrong table. The dance-floor migrates into the dining area and, slowly, the young, vibrant dance-hall crowd overtakes the sophisticates eating foie gras. All the while, the air-conditioning is on the fritz, the place is burning up, and the bar is out of ice. Well, hey, it's only the appearance that matters right? So let's use the remnants of that broken door to pack around the bottle of champagne. In the end, the only thing that could happen does: the place literally collapses and Monsier Hulot escapes into what is now a new dawn.

The analysis of that last paragraph could fill a book. It's all so damn funny that one almost forgets that it is a metaphor for the inevitable collapse of our society of appearances. It's dour, and possibly a bit over the top, but it is also very effective. We can finally breathe when Hulot makes his exit, and we wonder ourselves - is that really how we would look to an outsider. The answer is probably yes, but I do not believe that Tati condemns the whole thing. The last 10 minutes of the film are centered on a roundabout in the middle of the city. The cars are packed and barely moving. It seems like hell, but Tati turns it into, well, not heaven, but not something without redemption. Music right similar to a carousel soundtrack slowly starts. The camera begins to pick up pace and we see what is going on: Tati is single-handedly redeeming his citizens and his town. This despicable, superficial society is turned into a circus. The roundabout becomes the carousel, a tilting windowpane reflecting a busload of travelers becomes a roller coaster, and the ice-cream man is there to keep everyone refreshed. Someone once told me that the only reaction one can possibly have concerning life is laughter. All we can do is laugh at the absurdity that we observe and take part in ourselves. Tati knew this while making Playtime and, rather than stand outside and ridicule, he grabbed a bucket of popcorn and joined in with the laughter.

Also check out Kent Jones' essay at the Criterion site. It delves a little bit deeper into the circus-like atmosphere surrounding the production of Playtime.


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