*. Is it a crime not to like Playtime? I think in critical circles it probably is. But I still can’t bring myself to fall in line.
*. Make no mistake: I admire Playtime. I have immense respect for Jacques Tati’s achievement. The meticulousness and painstaking attention to detail he brought to the design is nothing short of amazing, and any lover of film has to acknowledge his heroic personal investment in the project. Yes, it’s true that there’s so much going on in nearly every shot that you really do have to watch Playtime several times to fully appreciate how completely Tati’s vision has been realized. But that said . . .
*. It’s not a funny movie. I don’t just mean there are no laugh-out-loud moments. I mean there’s nothing about it that I would even want to characterize as droll or particularly amusing. There are a handful of cute visual gags, but even calling them gags may be overselling them. A priest stands so that a neon “O” appears above his head like a halo. A glass door shatters but the doorman pretends it is still there by holding on the handle. A man undresses in his apartment and a woman in the apartment next to him appears to be watching him through a wall. A waiter seems to pour champagne into the floral hats of some American women. Another waiter turns into a scarecrow as uniforms at a restaurant fall apart. Various items deflate and inflate.
*. Aside from this, the amusement mainly comes from recognizing the same characters drift through the mise-en-scène. This aspect of the film makes it sort of like watching a widescreen version of Where’s Waldo? Cute, and perhaps expressive of something, but not much.
*. I’ve used the word “cute” a couple of times. Other words often applied to Tati’s humour in this film include detached, distant, subtle, intricate, and austere. If those adjectives fit your taste in movies, then Playtime may be the movie for you. If not you may find it a tough slog.
*. Critics found much to analyse in Playtime. It’s a movie that’s made for analysis, close reading, and the rewards of multiple viewings. Again: it’s a movie that it’s impossible not to appreciate. It demands appreciation. It wants the audience to do a lot of work. It is not a movie to be “passively watched” (as one critic has put it) but to be actively explored.
*. I nod my head at all this, but get impatient with it as well. No matter how well executed it all is, it just seems clever to me. Furthermore, I’m not that interested in the larger point. It’s an exquisite, stylized portrait of the crowded dance of modern life, but is the only point that modern life is drab and mechanical? That it reduces the human element? This was a cliché of the silent era. In his entry on Tati in the Biographical Dictionary David Thomson speaks of this and says “the point was well made, but tritely thought out and endlessly reiterated.” Indeed.
*. Thomson had more praise for Playtime in his essay on it in “Have You Seen . . . ?” but I think his earlier more negative judgment is more accurate. By coincidence, in my edition of the Biographical Dictionary the entry on Tati is on the page following the entry on Andrei Tarkovsky, where Thomson has the following to say about Solaris: “I do not mean to be snide when I say that an episode of Star Trek explored [the same themes] with more wit and ingenuity, less sentimentality, and at a third the length.”
*. Well, maybe. But to adapt that judgment to the present case, I do not mean to be snide when I say that one of the classic Warner Bros. Looney Tunes episodes dealt with the same themes as Playtime (mad modernity, the city as machine) with more wit and ingenuity, less sentimentality, and at a tenth the length.
*. As a personal vision Playtime may be unmatched in film history. This is not always a good thing though (see Pauline Kael’s remarks on filmmakers’ follies). Tati built his own city (dubbed Tativille) on massive sets, and oversaw nearly every aspect of the production to an extreme. The time he lavished on its production and then editing is hard to imagine today. And it was indeed something very new. Its only star is almost a background figure, it has little dialogue that could be made out, there is no story or plot, it’s shot in colour but its entire world is constructed out of glass and a thousand shades of gleaming gunmetal grey. In all of this there is a kind of perfection achieved. And yet again I have to say “And yet . . .”
*. Instead of demanding a more active response my own experience is to find it numbing. I also find parts of it very dull. The entire Royal Garden sequence, which goes on for something like 40 minutes, strikes me as well-intentioned and of course brilliantly choreographed but a total drag until the very end.
*. One of the things you can have fun doing is trying to spot the cut-out figures standing around in the background of shots. I’ve heard it said that Tati just didn’t have the extras but I think it more likely they are there for a purpose: the human crowd being reduced to another kind of mechanical design, sort of like the people at the restaurant with the crown logo stamped onto the back of their suits. I wonder if it might also have been a nod to Last Year at Marienbad. They have that mannequin look to them.
*. Playtime is a work of genius and a great movie but I appreciate all its commendable qualities without enjoying it very much. When it came out it did poorly, seeming to be behind the time. Since then it has certainly been enshrined as a classic by critics but I’m curious to see what audiences will think of it in the future. I suspect it will still have fans, but they won’t be people who see it as prophetic. Conceived as a comic modernist dystopia, it may come to seem a comfortably pleasant vision of things to come.