I ‘ve always had this little crazy theory lurking in the back corners of my mind that Jacques Tati got the inspiration for Playtime from an ant farm. Yeah, an ant farm – That thing with a colony of ants sandwiched between two plates of glass. That’s what I feel like when I watch Playtime: It’s an observation of a species.
Tati had already has a big hit with Playtime’s predecessor Mon Oncle, which takes a look at the impersonal modern world, as M. Hulot struggles to cope with a futuristic house. As good as Mon Oncle is, it’s view of the modern world is a tad sour. Playtime, on the other hand, can be seen as a celebration of humanity on the face of the onslaught of modernism.
The film revolves around M. Hulots experiences in a world of glass and concrete. Early in the film, he has an appointment with some bureaucrat for some reason or another. This is one of the first of the film slyly humorous scenes. Hulot waits while an elderly security guard punches numbers into a huge bank of buttons and lights. He sits and waits, and finally we start to hear the clicking of shoes on a hard floor as the camera looks down a long corridor. Finally, a speck appears at the other end, and the man walks up to meet him. To describe this scene does it no justice, but in seeing it in a theatre, the ludicrousness of the little man, the long, long hallway, and the clicky shoes is disarmingly funny. It’s a normal human being doing a normal thing in an absurd scenario.
Take the sequence where Hulot is told to wait before the guy sees him. The waiting room is a glass cube, which is funny enough, but the walls are festooned with portraits of stern authoritative types, who all seem to be looking at him. Hulot can see the world outside, others can see him, but he’s still like an ant under glass.
It would be wrong, however, to assume that Playtime is just a cute broadside against the modern world. To be sure, it isn’t an accident that the architecture is presented the way it is – Cold grays and blues, and right angles everywhere. Tati compensates for this with the people that he populates this world with, however. They aren’t cold automatons, but rather a living community. The subtle message of Playtime seems to be that even in this austere world, there is poetry. Whether it’s a man doing a bizarre ballet atop a rolling office chair, or an angry man slamming a noiseless door, Tati never makes his folks less than human.
The film tradition that Tati belonged to was that of the great silent comedians, like Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd. More than any other characteristic of Playtime (and of M. Hulots Holiday, and Mon Oncle), I love his brazenness in essentially doing away with dialogue in his films. You can hear people talking in Playtime, like the gaggle of American women, or the little security man I wrote about earlier, but it really doesn’t matter what they say. The construction of he film is so clever that dialogue is completely irreverent.
The centerpiece of Playtime is an extended sequence at a posh new restaurant where just about anything that can go wrong, does. As the time for the party approaches, work crews are literally just finishing up the contraction, and there is a running gag about a floor tile that doesn’t want to stick. Look at the patrons of this place as they start to flow in – They are all well dressed, affluent and perhaps somewhat uptight. Being uptight just won’t do in this movie, however. Tati brings several gags to simmer simultaneously during this sequence. There’s a fish dinner that never seems to get to the correct person. There’s a waiter with a torn coat that the others come to borrow stuff off. There’s a serving window that is too small to pass a dish through. All this stuff is whirled together as a jazz band plays, and gradually you notice that everyone has loosened up and packed the dance floor. The rowdiness builds and builds until Tati finally boils it over, and then brings it all back to earth in what is probably my favorite Tati scene.
Tati doesn’t really believe in bad guys, and that helps give his films that sweet glow that they all carry. With no real rooting interest in the outcome, you just sit back and observe. This was always in evidence in Tati’s films, but in Playtime, it’s carried to its logical conclusion. Although the film ostensibly centers on M. Hulot, he isn’t really the “star”. Playtime is much more diplomatic than the earlier stuff in the way the focus is distributed. The American lady played by Barbara Dennick is essentially as important to the film as Hulot, and others get significant screen time, like a fun-loving loud American diner, and the long-suffering headwaiter.
Playtime doesn’t end with bang, either. There are no great romantic moments, no revelations, and no grand comic flourishes. After spending the raucous night at the restaurant, the people just quietly go their own ways. I couldn’t have made that ending sound more boring, but Playtimes closing passages are pitch-perfect. The tourist ladies climb into their bus, and they meld back into the city. The bus joins into a roundabout with all makes and shapes of other vehicles. It’s instructive to notice that after bathing most of the rest of the film in sterile grays and blues, that this scene is a cacophony of color and noise.
That brings home to me what I love so much about this movie, and about Jacques Tati. Even in a cold mechanical world, people are people, and they’re the best things going. You just have to look.