We’ll Always Have Paris: Tati’s Playtime

Jacques Tati in Playtime (1967) | Criterion
Criterion

At first, you don’t notice the man with the umbrella. He strolls onto the screen at middle distance in what is a medium-wide shot of various characters going about their business within a modern-looking airport terminal. In a subsequent shot, he enters again, drops his umbrella briefly, picks it up, and moves on. The only thing alerting our attention to him is the sound of the umbrella and our own possible recognition of his familiar gait and argyle socks: it’s Monsieur Hulot, the dapper dope portrayed by French filmmaker Jacques Tati. Unassuming, with a bouncy walk and beige wardrobe, Hulot wanders through scenes with a sense of unfounded confidence. He is always slightly leaning forward, an ever-optimistic posture, as if time itself is tugging him into the future and he is happily giving himself over to whatever comes next. He has absolutely no idea where he’s going or how he’ll get there, but he’s wholly assured in his meandering.

Tati’s Playtime is an adventure without an objective, a comedy without jokes, a narrative without a plot. It is both perfectly choreographed and absolutely chaotic. I do not know how to prepare you for watching it beyond the simple admonition that you should watch it, and on the largest screen possible.

We do not so much view as browse the film, casually scanning the mise en scène within the widened frame, our eyes and minds wandering. This lackadaisical approach to story-telling (if one can even call Playtime a “story”) is often initially off-putting for many viewers, myself included. The first time I watched Playtime, I was totally bored; I may have nodded off once or twice. Where were the jokes? Who were these characters? What the hell is even happening right now? Why does any of this matter? Playtime allows us the time and space to ask such questions, but it’s not interested in giving answers as much as it is in our presence. Indeed, the languid pacing of Playtime forces us as the audience to be present in the moment, to look around and observe this cinematic world, to simply be.

Like a true friend or lover, Playtime has no agenda apart from wanting to just hang out and be with us.

***

My wife and I rarely watch movies together, as we have remarkably different tastes and personalities (opposites attract, as they say). But we’re stuck in lockdown in this global pandemic, and when I suggest we watch Playtime because it’s “a comedy about Paris” she agrees, so long as wine is involved. Paris is one of our favorite places; we spent our second wedding anniversary there, then came back 10 years later to live for an entire month in the City of Lights with our three children. In the summer heat, I viewed Playtime in Le Champo – Espace Jacques Tati, the tiny 82-year-old Parisian cinema near the Sorbonne that François Truffaut called his “headquarters.” Seeing it in a theater named for Tati with a French audience laughing their asses off remains one of my all-time favorite movie-going experiences.

But would my wife be so charmed? 

***

Playtime (1967) | Criterion

Playtime’s approach to comedy is wholly unique. It elicits smiles and snickers more often than outright belly laughs. Tati’s training in pantomime and his emphasis on mundane moments means that the jokes are generally sight gags or elaborate set-ups with slight punchlines. It does not operate with the frantic, witty dialogue of contemporary comedies or old-fashioned screwballs. Instead, it is patient, finding humor and joy in the little things as Tati provides ample time and visual space for us to explore his world. The gags don’t come one right after the other; Tati often allows multiple cuts between lengthy shots before a bit pays off, or keeps repeating the same joke over and over again, as if he were waiting until we’d nearly forgotten the gag before bringing it back to our memory.

Playtime could work as a silent film if it didn’t rely so heavily on the sound design. For instance, when Hulot arrives at a large high-rise office building for some unexplained important meeting, he finds himself in a massive glass waiting room sparsely furnished with Ikea-esque modern chairs that emit the most wonderful, fart-like “whoosh” when sat upon. The chairs appear again in a modern trade expo Hulot visits, and yet again in a scene set in modern glass-fronted apartments. In the latter scene, we’re observing the interior of the apartments from the outside, unable to hear what’s happening at all. But when Hulot’s boisterous friend shows off his familiar-looking new chairs, we can hear the “whoosh” in our minds when the two men sit down, and we laugh. Subtly and indirectly, Playtime has infiltrated our imaginations.

***

“What the hell is going on?”

My wife is perplexed by Playtime’s lack of plot. Hulot is sitting outside the glass waiting room while a man he’s supposed to meet walks down an extremely long hallway, his pronounced footsteps like metal tap shoes punctuating his steady pace. The uncut shot drags on, and she starts to giggle on the couch, glass of wine in hand. “That’s a long hallway,” she says.

When Hulot is ushered into the whooshing-chair waiting room, she mutters again: “What is happening? What’s supposed to be going on?”

Nothing. Nothing important is going on. He’s just waiting to meet someone.

“Why? What for? Who is he even?”

He’s Monsieur Hulot, Tati’s cinematic persona akin to Chaplin’s Tramp character seen in Tati’s  previous films, Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday and Mon Oncle. Hulot is not as obvious or ostentatious as the Tramp; he’s a background or supporting character, a goofy uncle, a face in the crowd whom Tati has brought into the foreground. Tati’s Hulot films aren’t really about anything in a conventional sense; there isn’t necessarily an explanation or reason for why Hulot is waiting here, and we never really learn what it is he wants or needs from this important meeting. Hulot does not have a plan, per se. Hulot just is; he goes with the flow.

Playtime (1967) | Criterion

When Hulot, having examined the various whooshing chairs, suddenly slips on the slick floor, barely catching himself, my wife laughs aloud. When another man enters—“He sounds like an American”—and sits down, with Hulot seated across the room on another whooshing chair, her laughter grows in intensity. As the American man goes through a routine of loudly exaggerated gestures while Hulot observes with a posture of befuddled curiosity, I notice that my wife has tears in her eyes from laughing so hard. Dabbing the tears with one hand and holding a wine glass in the other, she chokes out a simple-yet-profound critical observation of Playtime made all the more sincere by her intermittent giggles:

“It’s just so damn funny, and I have no idea why.”

***

The first half of Playtime is like an Edward Hopper painting: isolated individuals haunting grey-hued environments made up of sharp lines and steel and glass. But when evening falls, Playtime becomes a Bruegel painting: a vibrant, peopled panorama with so many individual moments captured in a massive single frame that your eye is constantly drawn back and forth in an attempt to make sense of the whole. Shot in 70mm, the pro-filmic world of Playtime is massive and immersive. Over the course of the Royal Garden restaurant sequence, the jazzy soundtrack crescendos to a manic frenzy and barely relents. There are moving bodies everywhere, people coming and going, swaying and dancing, laughing and kissing. It’s exhilarating.

Tati employs glass and doors (and glass doors) throughout Playtime to both comedic and metaphoric effect. Glass is both revelatory and an invisible barrier—we can see right through it, yet can’t reach whatever we see on the other side. It serves as a mirror, a screen, a threshold. Even as it allows for surveillance and transparency, it closes us off from one another or deceives us with its distorted reflections. Indeed, Playtime is all about missed connections and near-encounters. While Hulot is scrambling about the office buildings in his attempts to find the bureaucrat he’s trying to meet with, a parallel journey follows Barbara (Barbara Dennek), a beautiful young American tourist visiting Paris. Hulot sees Barbara in passing through the window of a bus, and they nearly bump into each other at the expo, but they never quite meet, glass windows often acting as the screen between them. In this sense, glass allows proximity without intimacy.

Playtime (1967) | Criterion

Doors hold similar metaphoric significance, both a means of entrance and a fixture between worlds. Hulot encounters a silent slamming door in the expo; later, he becomes momentarily trapped in the modern apartment building foyer when he can’t operate the automatic door. The major turning point in the film is Hulot’s crashing into the glass door at the Royal Garden, shattering it into a thousand pieces and thus shattering the barriers of modernity. Where there was once symmetry and structure, a distinct “in” and “out,” the breaking of the door is a literal and metaphorical opening towards human connection. Without the barriers of glass and doors, the party can now begin.

It’s hard not to draw connections to our current global situation, where glass screens are our main form of communication with the rest of the world, as well as obstructions reminding us that we can’t yet get too close. There is a sci-fi dystopian quality to its semi-artificial bizarre world of blue-and-grey rigidity. Underlying Playtime’s quirky humor is an apocalyptic theme of disintegration, an interrogation of modern technology’s empty promise of human communion and comfort while only providing isolating walls of glass. In one iconic scene, we see Hulot happen upon a friend who invites him into his fancy modern apartment building. The entire sequence is filmed from across the street, outside of the interior cubicle worlds—we are voyeurs at a social distance, an aesthetic meta-reminder of how disconnected we are from one another, and that we’re watching characters on a screen. There’s a sight gag with TVs in the apartments as characters in different flats appear to watch their next-door neighbors undress—we are voyeurs watching voyeurs, complicit in Tati’s critique of our world of surveillance and screen-based entertainment. Characters are so close to one another, yet also so separated and isolated, living in self-created quarantine within tomorrow’s modern boxes.

Yet in the midst of all the division and detachment, a connection occurs: Barbara and Hulot cross paths multiple times over the course of Playtime but they finally meet in the Royal Garden sequence. It’s a platonic meet-cute, absent of eros yet still subtly romantic. They dance and laugh together, enjoying one another’s company as they quietly observe the madness of humanity surrounding them. When the restaurant musicians decide to quit, there’s a call for a piano player to keep the party going. Quiet and demure, Barbara nevertheless volunteers and plays a beautiful song, one which leaves many in the room (including Hulot) in awe. The tone of both the restaurant and film shifts here—it’s as if all of the previous seemingly-random events were leading up to this brief, affecting moment of human connection and tranquility. We can see tiny echoes of the Hulot-Barbara relationship in Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation or Jem Cohen’s Museum Hours, where two strangers from different worlds are spiritually lost in metropolitan mazes, forming unexpected bonds through their existential longings for relationship and meaning.

My wife comments on the chicness of Barbara’s sparkling green dress, that she stands out amidst the more formal black-and-white dresses of her Parisian counterparts. This feels intentional on Tati’s part; by the finale at the Royal Garden, the grey-hued color palette and rigid, steely lines have been exchanged for a madcap mosaic of colorful chaos, where even the ceiling caving in doesn’t put a stop to the contagious joy. There’s a particular shot of the dance floor which is so overwhelming in its activity that my wife and I both utter an unconscious “whoa.” Bodies flail about with reckless freedom and champagne flows freely; all social inhibitions or formal obligations are dissolved. It is time to play. My wife watches with a sleepy smile on her face, and I find myself enjoying watching her watch Playtime as much as watching Playtime itself.

In the morning after the party, Hulot and Barbara get breakfast at a nearby café/drugstore. When it’s time for her to leave, he buys her a scarf and flowers, souvenirs of her trip to Paris. In the end, we see Barbara on the bus in a carousel of cars, headed back to the airport with her new scarf and some photographs she’s taken as reminders of her Parisian experience. She’ll get on a plane to some unknown destination, likely never to see Hulot again. We never see him again either; he simply disappears into the crowd. Playtime ends in a ballet of traffic and a sudden cut to night, the lights of Paris as bright points piercing the darkness.

***

When the film ends, my wife offers her appraisal: she liked the music and the humor and Barbara’s green dress, but felt the film could have been 30 minutes shorter and would have been better for it. “Lose the expo sequence,” she says. She laughs when I say that Tati’s original version was 30 minutes longer. We talk and laugh some more, discussing how the film isn’t like a conventional comedy, and that this is not the Paris we remember. Through our conversation, the movie itself becomes a memory, an intimate experience shared together in an isolating time of lockdown and global fear. There’s something at-once nostalgic and hopeful about this, that we will fondly remember watching Playtime together in the time of the pandemic, just as we fondly remember our past summers together in Paris.

In philosopher Ernst Bloch’s massive tome The Principle of Hope, he suggests that part of what makes us distinctly human is our capacity to imagine a better possible life, to daydream and wish, to wonder What Could Be rather than What Is. For Bloch, great cultural works—including works of cinema—have the latent potential to generate such hope within us. He goes on to describe good cinema as a “dream-factory” capable of “opening up of the wide world, especially nearby, in the incidental, in pantomimic detail.” He continues: “The magic [of cinema] is combined with that photographable transparency…which states that a different society, indeed world, is both hindered and circulating in the present one. This is the right thing and the best thing that emerges from the film.”

When I think of Tati’s dream-factory in Playtime, I see such latent hope. Even in its satirical interrogation of modern society—our obsession with technology, our inability to communicate or connect with others, our soul-crushing busyness and anxiety—there is not a hint of cynicism. Instead, Playtime opens up the wide world of the incidental in “pantomimic detail,” a world of possibility and imagination and joy, where shattered glass doors become magical portals into the party. 

What does Playtime all add up to? I honestly still don’t know. The film doesn’t bother to tell me. But it allowed my wife and I to spend two hours just being together, hours filled with laughter and lightheartedness and love. The future is nearly unimaginable at this point in history, but whatever comes I know we’ll lean into it together in hope, with no invisible barriers between us.

  1. Thank you for your lovely and loving appreciation of my favorite film. I first saw it after recording it overnight on my first VCR, and it was my introduction to Tati. Like your wife, I was 10-15 minutes into the film and completely befuddled, until I laughed for the first time, and that was my “Ah hah!” moment: “It’s a comedy!” Rewind-and-start-over.

    I’ve had the pleasure of seeing it theatrically several times with adoring and receptive audiences, mostly following the 70mm restoration.

    The glass door shattering is indeed the pivot point in the film, Tati literally shatters the storyline, such as it is.

    While I have multiple copies on DVD and Blu-ray, it’s a difficult film to watch at home and not with an audience on the largest screen possible. So, I rarely do watch it at home and it unfortunately has not screened in my city in many years, surprisingly not even in the 4K restoration done a few years ago.

    Nonetheless, on the final trip back to the airport, when Tati abruptly cuts to white lights on a black background, I always get a whimsical tear in my eye and choke up just a bit, it’s always very moving to me. He literally tells us that it’s all splashes of light in the darkness, images on a blank screen that he has moved us with, cinema at its most fundamental and reflexive.

    Thank you again.

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