The first thing that comes to mind with the word "masterpiece" might well be a painting, though of course the word has come to be used commonly in describing the work of writers, musicians and filmmakers as well. Jacques Tati's 1967 film Playtime is generally considered his masterpiece and, in fact, the film brings to mind a series of paintings. Though Tati makes use of movement and sound and, most prominently, architecture, Playtime has the curious effect of a museum piece. As a film of its era, it is utterly unconventional and strikingly unique; it begs not to be watched in the same manner as a conventional narrative film. Like a great painting, it is meant to be savored, pored over, observed from different angles and revisited in time.
With Playtime, Tati largely foregoes narrative and deals with character mostly in macroscopic terms. Tati's signature persona of M. Hulot (the center of Tati's Oscar-winning smash Mon Oncle) is present for stretches, but the filmmaker strenuously avoids making him a central protagonist. Rather, the film amounts to a mockumentary about twenty-four hours in the life of a big city. Tati holds the mirror up to a city that never sleeps, first in the day life of careerism, bureaucracy and consumerism, and then in the night life scrambling within and trafficking into and out of a restaurant that has obviously opened prematurely. Playtime's aim is partly stringent satire about the conformity and estrangement of urban living, and partly an empathetic view of the human struggle in adapting to such a world in its misguided "efficiency," in the ways technology can replace ease. The modern urban center is full of wonders, Tati seems to say, but is it wonderful?
Without question, Playtime is one of the most practically ambitious films ever made, and though it nourished Tati's soul, it also destroyed his career and destabilized his life. No location could meet the director's needs, so he commissioned an ingenious, large-scale modular set with intersecting streets and two buildings representing partial skyscrapers (one with a working escalator). The set was quickly dubbed "Tativille," and it became home to a runaway production: expenses that ballooned out of control (over €12 million over budget) and a full year of shooting, followed by nine months of post-production. From the opening moments of high-strung jazz against a blue sky to the final suggestion of a carnival, Playtime is never less than hugely impressive from a production standpoint (credit production designer Eugene Roman), and Tati and cinematographer Jean Badal capture it all in 70mm, primarily in long shots that best exploit the format's clarity and depth of field.
Playtime's most challenging aspect is its diffusion of effect. Though the film's non-reliance on dialogue suggests a silent film and Tati's precision is felt in the mise en scene and mime (which he would eagerly demonstrate for the actors, resulting in countless "shadow Tati" performances), the comic business can have the disorienting effect of a raconteur's digression. Even those sequences that don't seem to reach their full comic potential contribute to the film's mesmerizing whole, whether in the hive-like daytime activity or the chaos at night. Tati's wide influence is apparent: the restaurant climax prefigures Blake Edwards' 1968 The Party, for example, and an early sequence involving Hulot waiting on an elderly porter and an executive clacking his way down a long corridor suggest the source of the bank sequence in David Lynch's Twin Peaks finale. (Trivia alert: Art Buchwald provided the sparse English dialogue.)
The satire is inescapable: the inhospitable space-age sterility and harsh lines of a glass-and-steel skyscraper's business spaces include a maze of cubicles, elevators and escalators (cf. Terry Gilliam's Brazil). The human contents of a tour bus demonstrate the widespread idiocy of tourists and consumers who giddily accept inane substitutes for the rich history of France. Drawn to consumer showrooms and led by the nose from hotel to designated restaurant and back, the tourists uniformly collect Eiffel Tower knick-knacks, but can't seem to see the monument's essence any more than we can in its two-dimensional appearance on a travel poster or its fleeting reflection in a glass door. In one devastating bit of set decoration, the posters advertising travel to all of the world's destination cities feature identical skyscrapers.
The spectacle of Playtime sticks in the mind, but its soul is in the details within each meticulously framed "play area." The opening scene in an airline terminal introduces us to various "walks of life," including a persistent janitor disappointed to find no trash. An extended sequence looking through the plate glass picture windows of an apartment complex humorously and sadly portrays how close and how far people can be while living side by side in the big city. And the blowout orchestrated for the restaurant sequence includes the film's sharpest conceptual gag, paying off the invisibility of so many of the city's windows and doors. One-upping the silent comics, Tati makes brilliant use of foley sound effects, another outlet of the film's dry comic sensibility.
For Playtime, Tati passed around Hulot's uniform of raincoat, hat, pipe, and loud socks to tease the audience, but also to get closer to making every man Everyman. Despite Playtime's healthy skepticism, one can easily see a joy and optimism in human potential expressed by the film (and its very existence), which ends with a tip of the hat to Paris, City of Lights.
Playtime looks gorgeous on Blu-ray, and Criterion surrounds it with a fantastic array of contextual bonus features. It helps to have restored 65mm source material from which to work, and there's simply no question that Tati's film has never looked better on home video. With a bit of extra digital scrubbing, the print used is very clean, and the color, contrast and grain structure come as close to replicating the theatrical experience as is possible in a home theater (I'm lucky enough to have seen the restored version in an old movie palace, and the Criterion disc is unimpeachable). The linear PCM 2.0 audio is, of course, faithful to the film's original presentation, and I'm happy to report crisp results in that regard.
The bonus features begin with a charming "Terry Jones Introduction" (6:17, HD) in which the Monty Python star discusses his personal experience and knowledge of the film, also highlighting his favorite comic bits.
Film historian Philip Kemp provides incisive selected scene commentary that runs just over forty-five minutes. "Au-Delà de Play Time" (6:30, HD) is a featurette presenting rare archival footage of pre-production, production, and the post-production destruction of the set, overlaid with scholarly narration about the film's history.
"Tati Story" (20:38, HD) recounts Jacques Tati's life and career with the help of illustrative clips and rare photos and footage. "Jacques Tati in M. Hulot's Work" (49:28, HD) is an extensive 1976 interview with Tati for the BBC series Omnibus.
"Tati at the San Francisco Film Festival" (16:52, HD) is an audio record, set to production stills, of Tati's appearance at the 1972 SFIFF. "Sylvette Baudrot" (12:10, HD) is an interview with Tati's longtime script supervisor.
"Cours Du Soir" (27:41, HD) is a 1967 short film written by Tati and directed by Nicolas Rybowski, in which "Tati plays the instructor of a class studying the art of mime." Made contemporaneously with Playtime, this delightful film appears to use some a bit of the film's set and evinces a similar photographic style.
I can't emphasize enough how terrific these bonus features are in providing a film-historical complement to Playtime, presented at its A/V best. Plus, Criterion includes a leaflet with a nifty essay by film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum (though I miss the Kent Jones essay from the original DVD release).
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer