Though with great sadness, Playtime‘s failure at the box office, even in retrospect, seems inevitable. In fact, the degree of success Jacques Tati did enjoy up until the release of Playtime in 1967 is pretty astonishing, considering how his films were so uncompromising and different from the conventional comedy of the day. It’s easy, and even natural to lament that Tati’s career virtually went down the drain with that tragic box office flop, and to hopelessly speculate on how many more masterpieces he could have come up with, had he had the chance. At the same time, however, let’s not forget to celebrate that he was able to make those four truly magnificent features—Jour de Fête, Les Vacances de M. Hulot, Mon Oncle, and Playtime—on his own terms, exactly as he conceived them. Monsieur Hulot, along with Chaplin’s Tramp and Keaton’s Great Stone Face, is one of the finest comic creations in the history of cinema.
There are a thousand great things one could say about Playtime: its unique, almost otherworldly mise-en-scène, biting satire on modernity and late capitalism, Tati’s masterful direction of (not exaggerating) several hundred extras, the innovative use of sound, and the list goes on. The film has since continued to inspire so many filmmakers around the world, from the infamous tracking shot of manic traffic jam in Godard’s Week End to the obvious homage paid in Rowan Atkinson’s insipid Mr. Bean’s Holiday. For me though, Tati’s most extraordinary achievement in the film is the realisation of what André Bazin would call ‘democratic mise-en-scène’ in cinema. Despite its lighthearted touch and never-ending supply of excellent gags, Playtime is a film that requires as much patience and concentration as Bresson’s and Tarkovsky’s films do—perhaps, even more.
Tati could have played safe with the film by bringing back the popular Monsieur Hulot as a central character. Well, Hulot does reappear in the film, but is reduced to a ‘nobody,’ but at the same time, every one (and thing) in Playtime is essentially Monsieur Hulot. Tati’s mise-en-scène consists of deep-focus photography, long and medium shots (no close-ups!), and every character always engaging in distinct actions; every one in the frame appears to be at once a ‘central character,’ and at once ‘an extra.’ Consequently, the audience is left in Tati’s brilliant, yet challenging vision, not really knowing where and what to look at and for. At first, this approach seems baffling, and even irresponsible: ‘does the director even know what he’s doing?’ you might ask. Well, I can assure you, Hulot does know his game very well. Every bit of Playtime, from its extravagant set to the choreography of every moving thing in the frame, is meticulously engineered by the great man himself. The movie is literally a massive ‘playground’ saturated with first-rate playthings at our disposal, and we are free to juggle with whichever we find fascinating.
Giving out the invitation to this manic, yet wonderful comic amusement park he designed, Tati acknowledges that his audiences have brains, and asks them to remain intelligent throughout the film. The world inside Playtime needs the audience’s active participation in order to assume any meanings at all; the film’s existential purpose is wholly contingent upon the empowered viewership. In a single shot, one may find as many as, say, twelve actions going on at the same time, and it is entirely up to her to choose which thread to follow. Sure, the absence of coherent ‘plot’ at first perplexes quite a few people, but Tati’s film does that magic of becoming what the audience makes of it. Some clever movies intellectually challenge their audiences with intricate plotting, ambiguous endings, etc. Playtime, on the other hand, not only intellectually challenges its audience, but also insists that they take the sovereign role in the experience. Such radically democratic vision for a film is a proper challenge against the vast majority of Hollywood and pseudo-Hollywood pictures across the world whose success has been founded on the passive, patronised viewership.
But, make no mistake: Playtime is not a Bressonian film ‘falsely’ packaged as a comedy picture. It’s true that Tati’s film is as rigorously contemplative as Au hasard Balthzar, but never for a second does it forget its comedic heart. The title says it all. Its intricacy and serious artistic ambition for a democratic form aside, what makes Playtime a true masterpiece at the end of the day is that the movie manages to be what it is whilst being incredibly funny and playful. The whole film plays with the irony that modernity and technologies, which are supposed to enhance the quality of our lives, in fact pose numerous challenges before us, and complicate human connections. Those straight lines and stiff movements (which seem to evoke machinery and robots) that dominate the beginning of the movie gradually start to form curves and become supple. By the time it gets to the climatic party sequence at a fancy Parisian restaurant, all the little gadgets and furniture are thrown away, and people seem a lot happier. One of my many personal favourites: at the doorless gate to the restaurant, a doorman, with a brass handle in his hand, pretends to open and close an invisible glass door.
To write about all the great comic devices and satirical moments in detail is a task doomed to fail—there’s simply too much of them. And I wouldn’t pretend to have grasped all of them, either. Despite the complexity and serious attitude towards ‘democracy,’ the movie never at once feels academic or burdensome. Noël Burch writes that Playtime is a film to be seen “several times, each from a different seat in the auditorium.” I certainly wouldn’t mind doing that. In fact, I look forward to those many dozen times that I will be watching this movie at various points in my life. In Tati’s artificial modern Paris, I feel at once like a kid who is about to open a heap of Christmas presents underneath the tree, and at once like a respected citizen of a democratic republic. And rarely does a film make its audience feel this way.