Jacques Tati’s masterpiece ‘Playtime’ on TCM

Playtime is one of my desert island movies. Jacques Tati’s comedy of modern times in urban Paris is both hysterical and sublime, a comic symphony of a city that never fails to carry me away in its warmth and ingenuity.The film plays on Turner Classic Movies as part of the Jacques Tati centenary on Thursday, October 9. My feature article on the film is now running on the website.

A film comedy directed with the grace of a ballet, the painstaking detail of an action painting and the affection of a love song, Playtime is one of the most sublime celebrations of individualism in the alienated landscape of modern urban life and consumer culture. This is a different kind of symphony of a city, conducted with rising and falling rhythms that segue from one movement to another over the course of a single day into the night and finally emerging into the dawn. Has a satire of the human behavior in the mechanistic urban world ever been so affectionate? The difference between Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936) and Tati’s Playtime is right there in the title: for Tati, there is a joy and wonder and fun in it all.

There’s no real “story” to the film, yet hundreds of tiny little stories can be found playing out in Tati’s widescreen images. Tourists arrive in an airport terminal with all the personality of an office building. In the swirl of organized chaos arrives Tati’s signature character, the gangly Mr. Hulot, decked out in his trademark overcoat and hat and clutching his familiar umbrella, on his way to a business meeting in the city. The tourists are efficiently shuttled off to busses for their whirlwind Paris visit, but this isn’t the Paris of ancient brick buildings and romantic bridges and historical monuments, but of skyscrapers of steel and walls of glass looking out onto paved streets packed with commuters and busses and pedestrians in a hurry. As the tourists gawk at the marvels of new inventions and contemporary creature comforts, one young woman (Barbara Dennek) with a dreamy look in her eyes longs for the romantic Paris that is only fleetingly glimpsed in reflections of car windows and glass doors. Meanwhile, Hulot finds himself lost in the maze of office cubicles and glassed-in waiting rooms while trying to track down a business associate, dwarfed by the size and scale of the coldly impersonal surroundings as he meets indifferent efficiency with comic individualism. The last half of the film takes place at the grand opening of a brand new nightclub, a mini-movie of its own that opens with workmen and waiters rushing the final details as the first night crowds arrive. It’s a model of modernity where every design flaw becomes glaringly apparent over the disastrous evening, but out of the slow collapse of the club’s dignified façade comes a human revolution, a magical idiosyncratic order created out of fun and laughter and social egalitarianism rising from the chaos.

Where so many comedy directors create humor from the outrageous exaggeration of images and situations, Tati creates his from an accumulation of minor touches, little dissonances, imaginative observations and pieces of creative business: hundreds of details that erupt with lives of their own but fit together like a clockwork mechanism with a human heartbeat.

Read the complete feature article here.

Author: seanax

I write the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website (www.streamondemandathome.com). I'm a contributing writer for Turner Classic Movies Online, Keyframe, Independent Lens, and Cinephiled, and the editor of Parallax View (www.parallax-view.org).. I've written for The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, The Seattle Weekly, GreenCine.com, Senses of Cinema, Asian Cult Cinema, and Psychotronic Video, among other publications, and I am a contributing editor to Parallax View. I currently live and work in Seattle, Washington, with my two cats, Hammet and Chandler.

2 thoughts on “Jacques Tati’s masterpiece ‘Playtime’ on TCM”

  1. Tati’s films are among the best available, no matter the language or timeframe. Each is a masterpiece of loving, just-off-center insights into the human psyche.

    My favorite: Mr. Hulot’s Holiday; Les Facteurs; Mon Oncle; just watching Play Time now, Trafic next. Any recommendations would be most appreciated!

    Baltimore, MD, USA

  2. Do you mean non-Tati recommendations? Tati made only a handful of films and the only one I haven’t seen is Parade. All the rest I heartily recommend.

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