BluRay/DVD Reviews

PLAYTIME

By • Sep 5th, 2006 •

Share This:

(Criterion) 2 Discs. 1967. 124 minutes. Color. Stereo. French with optional English subtitles. 1:85:1 aspect ratio. Anamorphic widescreen enhanced.

Once upon an August afternoon, I was crossing Broadway when a Monarch butterfly flitted before me. In that hazy light, with its almost hallucinatory sense of languor, those black and orange wings were dazzling. I followed the darting thing inside Gray’s Papaya, where it landed on a man grilling hot dogs. As I was a regular, he had already scooped up a pair and placed them in toasted buns.
“Two franks, plain”, he said.
“There’s a butterfly on your hat,” I said.
He shook his head, uncomprehending. The insect resembled a feather affixed there. Yet no one even noticed. “Two franks, plain,” he repeated.

It’s only now, after watching Criterion’s new transfer of PLAYTIME, that I’m aware I was briefly inhabiting a moment imagined by Jacques Tati. Perhaps the truly classic films are those that are able to limn the future from the dazed acquiescence of our present. In any case, PLAYTIME, which upon its release in 1967 seemed like an act of madness, at least to those whose job it was to distribute it, now appears to be utterly contemporary, an ode to the human capacity for joyful confusion even in the most constricting of surroundings.

This is the picture’s second appearance on DVD. The first, long out of print, was selling for upwards of $150 on ebay this summer. This new version not only ups the ante with a spectacular transfer from original 70mm elements – the first edition was a little lax in that department, with a slight graininess and a greyish cast -but adds a second disc of extras (the Terry Jones intro & Tati short “Cours de Soir” being carried over from the first edition) that will keep you occupied for months to come.

PLAYTIME is the third film to feature Mr. Hulot. As played by Jacques Tati, Hulot is an amalgam of odd expressions and gestures. Moving in opposite directions at once, he seems to be in constant danger of falling. His presence creates disasters for those around him, while he remains oblivious. These comic performances of Tati’s, elegant and perfectly timed, are distillations of his work from French music halls of the 1930’s. (One particular sketch, where Tati simultaneously mimed horse and jockey, elicited a rave review from Colette.) In spite of Hulot’s automaton-like behavior – imagine Robbie the Robot crossed with Buster Keaton – he became a much beloved figure in France, immediately identifiable by his wrinkled raincoat, umbrella and pipe. For the first two films, MR. HULOT’S HOLIDAY (1951) and MON ONCLE (1958), which won the Oscar for best foreign film, Hulot’s dance of confusion is contrasted against highly developed (albeit conformist) characters in very specific settings. In this sense, Hulot, although created from Tati’s work as a mime, is similar to Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel, whose ill-fated attempts to fit in are equally charming and funny.

By the time of PLAYTIME, however, Tati had developed his theory of the “democratization of comedy.” Apparently, as Tati explains in an interview on the second disc, there is no need for comic actors. “Everyone is a comedian,” Tati says. “You watch people on the street and realize they are all funny.” Except for Hulot, who is mostly on the sidelines, there are no well-defined characters. Nor is the film set in any specific time other than a vaguely futuristic Paris of anonymous glass buildings. (Landmarks such as the Eiffel Tower are only seen as reflections.) The frames are filled with hundreds of actors (most of them people Tati found on the street) enacting a series of comic gags. Yet every person is individualized by the camera. The only remnant of the old Paris, Tati seems to be saying, is in the personalities of its residents. The more automated the surroundings, the more eccentric these people behave. In their gestures, languorous yet sleekly oblivious, memory seems to be expressed as virtuoso and impetuous movement.

As Jason Ankeny has noted, Tati’s comic sequences are structured like Rube Goldberg devices with human dominoes. For instance, Hulot mistakenly sticks the tip of his umbrella in a water main. On the opposite corner, a plume of water knocks over man #2. He steps on the billowing spume and causes mud to be flung from the ground at man #3. And so on. It’s as if the comedy of destruction from a Laurel & Hardy short was extended exponentially as well as infinitely.

Although there is no real story, the film does have forward movement. It begins at Orly airport, where a group of American tourists, including Barbara (Barbara Dennek) boards a bus for Paris. Once in the city of lights, Hulot gets off another bus, spending the day on a job interview that never happens because he and the interviewer keep missing each other. That evening, all of the cast (including Hulot and Barbara, who have a mild flirtation) end up at a new upscale restaurant that proceeds to fall apart around them. (My favorite vignette is a tall redhead whose high heel gets stuck in a loose floor tile. A study in sang froid, she manages to extricate herself while moving in rhythm to the jazz band behind her.)

From this description, one can see a real tension in PLAYTIME, a tension that turns pratfalls into dance, where gesture is both robotic yet an expression of individuality, filmed, mosaic-like, as one continuous movement across the screen. In this sense, PLAYTIME becomes a satire about the inevitability of confusion in a perfect world, a dystopia that’s utopian in its focus on the liberating aspects of performance, because of Tati’s presentation of his comic method in its purest form. Like a vaudeville troupe imitating the vertiginous squares of a Modrian painting, what we see is simultaneously avant-garde, yet retro in style and sensibility.

Due to its production history, the film’s legend has in many way obscured the pleasures of watching it. Made in the early 60’s when very few tall buildings existed in France, Tati was forced to construct a cityscape of edifices 52 feet high and 288 feet long (dubbed “Tativille” by the crew). It ended up employing 1000 people, took two years to shoot and cost around 30 million dollars, which the director was never able to recoup.
The use of 70mm also increased the production cost. In an interview on the second disc from the American premiere at the San Francisco Film Festival, Tati says that he went with 70mm for the magnetic soundtrack. Having twice as much frame space, however, as well as an increased sense of depth and detail, also immeasurably helps follow the concisely arranged pratfalls, which often happen simultaneously.

This transfer has an additional 5 minutes of newly discovered material and clocks in at 124 minutes. Although the original cut, now lost, was 152 minutes long (Tati was forced by his financial overseers to trim the film until it was under two hours), this new version, except for an abrupt transition from day into night about an hour into the film, plays seamlessly.

PLAYTIME was fairly impossible to see until recently. It was never shown in the US because the film was deemed unreleaseable by distributors. (This verdict, made at a time when films by Jean-Marie Straub & Jacques Rivette were art house hits, almost boggles the mind.) I initially caught the restored 70mm version at the Walter Reade in Lincoln Center, and this transfer miraculously recapitulates that experience.

A perfect example of the upgrade is in the Cafe/Pharmacy scene. A neon cross is hanging near a pastry counter, turning everything bright chartreuse. As people move from the café towards the pharmacy, their complexion changes drastically. Munching medicinally green eclairs, they glance at each other, not realizing they all have the same deathly pallor. In the first version, it was hard to differentiate between the colors and the detail was muddy. Here the sharpness and clarity of the image adds to the humor.

Perhaps in a work such as PLAYTIME, where every inch of the frame reflects the maker’s intent, simply reproducing that image accurately is in itself a creative act. Yet this transfer has a warmth and even, though I hesitate to say it, a humanity I’ve never encountered before in a DVD. Go ahead and laugh, but with Criterion’s new disc of this film, my televison screen is suddenly transformed into an extension of community.
It’s difficult to separate PLAYTIME from the history of its making, not to mention the life of its director, Jacques Tati, and his creation, Mr. Hulot, who is the hesitant protagonist of this film. The second disc of extras deals with the subtle interface between Tati & Hulot to the extent that it becomes a visual poem commenting on and enhancing the feature. In particular, there’s a fascinating BBC Omnibus program from 1976, “Jacques Tati in M. Hulot’s Work.” Filmed at the Hôtel de la Plage, the setting of M. HULOT’S HOLIDAY, it’s a wonderful show in its own right, with images of the beach from the black & white film replicated in color. Clearly off-season, the setting seems idyllic. Gavin Millar, the host and interviewer, is lean, slightly modish in a slim leather jacket and quietly passionate. It’s mostly a discussion with Tati about his ideas of comedy and the role of Hulot. A great deal of time is spent on PLAYTIME and the necessity of marginalizing Hulot. Blue-eyed and articulate, it’s surprising how different Tati the creator is from his character.

I love PLAYTIME. But for much of the film I miss Hulot. The qualities of innocence and tenderness which Hulot brings to the earlier films is mostly lacking here. The point is made that because Tati acted out all the movements for his cast–there is footage of this on the second disc–every actor in PLAYTIME is Hulot. Still, a screenful of Hulots seems almost beside the point, or rather too abstract, if none the less beautiful. Because of this, PLAYTIME, while a masterpiece, is somehow less personal. There’s a beautiful moment at the end, though, where Hulot gives Barbara a fleur de lis which is echoed by the three-tiered streetlamps that begin switching on all over Paris as the sun sets. For the record, this is my favorite DVD of 2006.


Extra Features: Video introduction by Terry Jones; Selected scene commentary by historian Philip Kemp; “Au-dela de PLAYTIME,” a short documentary featuring behind-the-scenes-footage; “Tati Story,” a short biographical film; “Jacques Tati in Monsieur Hulot’s Work,” a 1976 BBC program featuring Tati; Audio interview with Tati from the US debut of PLAYTIME in 1972; Video interview with script supervisor Sylvette Baudrot; “Cours de soir,” a short from 1967 written by & staring Tati; plus a new essay by Johnathan Rosenbaum.

Cast: Jacques Tati, Barbara Dennek, Georges Montant, France Rumilly, Reinhart Kolldehoff, Andre Fouche, Billy Kearns, Yves Barsacq, Nicole Ray.

Credits: Directed by Jacques Tati; Cinematography by Jean Badal & Andreas Winding; Screenplay by Jacques Tati & Jacques Lagrange; English dialogue by Art Buchwald; Music by James Campbell & Francis Lemarque; Edited by Gerard Pollicand; Production Designed by Eugene Roman; Sound by Jacques Maumont.

Tagged as:
Share This Article: Digg it | del.icio.us | Google | StumbleUpon | Technorati

Leave a Comment

(Comments are moderated and will be approved at FIR's discretion, please allow time to be displayed)