Few words are spoken in Jacques Tati's epic Playtime, or at least not many discernible ones, yet you could hardly call it a silent film. Then again, even the true silent films were never really quiet: musical accompaniment, sometimes a full orchestra, played over Chaplin and Keaton and Griffith, and the audiences used to heckle and ad-lib lines all the time (so when people complain that theater etiquette has gone down the drain, know that it was always boorish). Playtime, however, is full of sound, diegetic noises intensified to be louder than they could possibly be in real life. But therein lies the brilliance of Tati's staging: in a world buzzing with sound, people hardly share a word between one another, and the crammed masses of growing cities produce a scenario in which everyone is, as James Brown would say, talking loud and saying nothing.
Tati shot Playtime in 70mm, a format normally reserved for screen epics such as 2001: A Space Odyssey. Indeed, Tati's main goal of the film, to retire his beloved character Monsieur Hulot, makes his choice of film stock seem all the more indulgent. Instead of a vanity project, though, Tati created his greatest commentary on the confusion and rigid ennui of the age of technology. Playtime, despite audience expectations, features Hulot in only a small portion of the running time, but made up for it with numerous ersatz Hulots, all sporting his trenchcoat and umbrella and nearly all mistaken for Hulot by the other characters. Sometimes I wonder if the real Hulot mistakes himself for one of the fakes: he stumbles about unsure of his surroundings, befuddled both by the strange urban jungle and the people who move through it.
Tati sets the film in a quasi-futuristic vision of Paris, dominated by ultra-modern buildings of geometric perfection, all steel and glass and indistinguishable from the last. It's so rigid that even the people move in straight lines, and turn only in right angles. The world has become so unified through this architecture that the individuality of nations has largely vanished, and most of the film's dialogue is in English (having been to Paris as well as Provence in the early years of this decade, I can safely say that even a middle school course in French isn't necessary to survive in the country). In one of the film's funniest sight gags, a group of American tourists, with whom Hulot travels, passes a collection of posters advertising travel to other countries, all of them displaying the exact same photograph of one of the modern buildings with only the typeface of each country offering any distinction between them.
At least, it's one of the best sight gags that I spotted. As the film contains little dialogue, most of the comedy comes from physical comedy and visual humor, and Tati crams every part of the massive frame with something worth watching. Throughout the entire first sequence at the airport, we're always searching for the real Hulot among the many decoys, only for him to finally make his entrance totally unnoticed at the back of a long line of American tourists preparing to head to their buses; finally, he drops his umbrella, the amplified noise of which alerts everyone to his presence.
That Hulot should spend so much time with foreigners emphasizes how lost he is in his own country. Hulot always had trouble dealing with the modern, technological worlds in which Tati placed the character, but this Paris is unrecognizable. It exists seemingly only as a series of consumerist expos and the corporate headquarters that coordinate them, lacking any of the flavor of Paris, that noble layer of perfumed slime that has outlasted kings and will outlast however many republics the nation can conjure. This Paris looks as if it smells of car exhaust and industrial cleaning supplies, one giant hospital wing located just off a clogged highway. Like a tourist, he absentmindedly wanders in a straight line through sections of a city designed only to offer photo-ops; one amusing reoccurring joke shows a female tourist attempting to take a photo of an elderly Parisienne selling flowers, one of those carefully placed displays of "the real (insert city here)" designed to give a Romanticized portrait of a city's simpler, poorer side without forcing the visitor to handle the joys and horrors of the underclass. The uncomfortable suggestion that Tati makes with this alignment of returning native and uninterested visitor is that the world is changing so rapidly that he can no longer recognize his own home.
Of course, Hulot's journey through Paris becomes entwined with the tourists' because of a far more prosaic reason: he is hopelessly inept. Hulot rode on the same plane with them, but he travels to an office building for a meeting while the tourists go across the street to a trade exhibition. Hulot gets so lost in the office's labyrinthine structure -- allowing us to take a stroll through an area filled with cubicles completely sealed off from each other and revealing themselves to contain workers only when Hulot hops on an escalator and gets an elevated viewpoint -- that he ends up back at the entrance. He spots the building guide across the street and travels over there with relief, only for us to realize that the guide was right next to him Hulot chased after the reflection in the other building's glass.
The glass of Paris' buildings becomes, appropriately, a window into this vision of urban futurism: an old Army buddy takes Hulot back to his apartment to meet his family, and the entire complex is made up of rooms with windows as large as walls completely open to the street. As we watch Hulot and his friend as well as the other residents of the apartment through the screens, they sit with the television screens of their apartments, which are arranged to look, from the street POV of the camera as if each family is watching the other. So, when Hulot's buddy says good bye to his friend and begins to undress, the woman next door watching TV, intrigued, looks as though she's enjoying a striptease. Near the start of the film, a man approaches the porter of the building where Hulot must go for his meeting and asks for a light. The porter says, "Go around," and the camera pushes back and pans until we see that the two were separated by a giant glass wall all along. In one move, it's both a terrific sight gag and a genuine commentary and lament of the barriers we erect between each other.
Of course, glass also reflects, and many images that the characters idealize, be they mundane like the guide who can help Hulot through the building or something grand like the Eiffel Tower of Basilica of the Sacred Heart on Montmartre, are seen as reflections. Depending on your point of view, the notion that images of the Paris of old are only seen in mirrors is downright cynical: they might as well be mirages, a literal interpretation suggesting that Tati's outlook on the contemporary, increasingly technological Paris is but a pale reflection of its old glory.
It certainly fits into Tati's obvious aversion to technology's ability to at once make the world more complicated even as it reprograms society into mechanized rote, but I agree with Jonathan Rosenbaum that this movie is not about angst, it's a celebration of man's unwillingness, perhaps inability, to conform to such rigidity. Consider the sequence set in the swanky new Royal Garden restaurant, a scene that starts at the halfway mark and continues almost to the end of the film. It's the restaurant's opening night, and the owners didn't even wait for the workers to finish setting up the place before allowing guests inside. The maître d' shoos the construction workers into the kitchen just as the first patrons enter, and eventually dresses them as waiters to deal with the crowd.
The first half of the film is considerably subtle, downplaying Hulot's more physical comedy to just his lurching gait while much of the humor came from unspoken or garbled communication breakdown and confusion between people. Tati shot the scenes in color but as if they were black and white, and indeed the drab colors of the high-rises, broken up only by the tiniest hints of red and green here and there, are depressing in their blandness. However, the Royal Garden starts the ball rolling, slowly establishing the perils of this new restaurant -- tiles not fully sealed to the floor, a possible short circuit, entitled clientèle who will demand to sit at a table next to the one the waiter assigned them, apparently because they can.
There are simply too many gags, even if you divide the sequence into various scenes, to list. The chairs of the restaurant have iron backs shaped like crowns, each with sharp barbs on the end that tear the fabric of careless waiters. One lad tears his pants, so he goes outside. Soon, a co-worker comes out and says that his coat was ripped, so he borrows the already-damaged waiter's. For the rest of the evening, the co-worker returns intermittently, with a broken shoe or a dirty bowtie, until the first victim stands there looking like a bum outside of this elite restaurant.
Not that it stays elite for long. Just before guests arrive, someone calls the host for reservations, and he assures them that the Royal Garden is an exclusive restaurant, yet people begin to flood into the restaurant at an alarming rate. Hulot even manages to get in, and accidentally walks into the glass door and smashes it. The doorman panics, recovers, then continues to hold the brass handle, swinging it "open" when guests enter and leave to continue receiving tips. Hulot inadvertently runs into many of the characters he'd interacted with throughout the film in the Royal Garden, and soon the place blossoms into a real party despite the restaurant running out of food several hundred people ago. Led by a boisterous American who welcomes the working class gents who stumble into the restaurant (all of them drawn in by the buzzing neon sign), the party grows until the first house band leaves, and the second cuts their act short when Hulot and the others start literally bringing the place down. Undaunted, Barbara, a fascinating tourist who sought photos of old ladies in street stalls and true Parisian landmarks in the search of the "real" Paris, takes over behind the piano while an old chanteuse leads the drunken revelers in song.
The Royal Garden sequence is a grand ballet, one that crescendos for an entire hour until it at last it explodes and unleashes the beauty and joy of man after so much conformity and dispassion. No wonder the place falls apart: the buildings that stifle these characters are at last being surpassed, and rich and poor alike have united to tear it down with fun. The film ends with the patrons stumbling into the next morning and heading across the street for a drink before the tourists have to return to their plane. In this scene, Tati films the cars in a roundabout as a jubilant carousel, and it could signify either the ludicrous nature of urban traffic or the joy of freedom, as they now move in a circle, a total curve, instead of the sharp angles of their initial motion. The gutting of the Royal Garden allows humans to regain control of an environment that long ago trapped its creators, an act that justifies the film's epic scope by placing it on a thematic level with Kubrick's aforementioned masterpiece, which used its massive canvas to reassert humanity over the advanced tools that stole away our souls.
Playtime could be seen as a cranky old man's rant about how he misses the good old days and how kids today are too busy listening to their stereos and smacking each other with heroin to realize how terrible they're making the world. At one point, an American walks through an office hawking the Herald-Tribune, almost certainly a reference to Jean Seberg doing the same in Godard's Breathless. Was Tati, who shot his film with such a traditional sense of film grammar and even refused to use close-ups because he thought them crude, taking a swipe at the filmmaker who made it his mission to undo filmic rules simply for the sake of undoing them? Perhaps, but I think he's merely acknowledging that even film is changing under his nose. I know that I will need to revisit this film numerous times to catch all or even most of the jokes, and to parse out the meanings of such bits as the Breathless connection; even with Criterion's pristine Blu-Ray, this is a film that needs to be seen in a theater as well. But I look forward to multiple viewings of this cerebral, technically resplendent, yet thoroughly human masterpiece.