PLAYTIME - The Criterion Collection (Blu-ray)
In the middle of the twentieth century, French director Jacques Tati became an international sensation with his character Monsieur Hulot, a kindhearted bumbler whose physical comedy exploits could well have been recorded decades earlier before the advent of sound. Playtime was Hulot’s third feature-length outing, and its title is curious because even though the film has comedic elements, Tati is also engaging in a serious reaction to his modern times of mid-‘60s Paris. There have been different runtimes over the years and this version is 124 minutes. It was initially 152, and it’s hard to imagine having to slog through another half hour.
Playtime doesn’t have much in the way of a plot. Instead, it features six set pieces linked together by two characters, Hulot and Barbara, a member of a group of traveling American tourists, whose paths crisscross over the course of a day. The first takes place at the airport as the women arrive. In the city, Hulot enters an office building, but once inside has difficulty making his appointment. In a similar building next door, Hulot ends up at a trade exhibition, as do the American tourists. In the evening, Hulot runs into a friend who invites him into his apartment, the building of which finds all the residents with a glass window making the entire wall that faces the street. The bulk of the last half of the film takes place at The Royal Garden, a new restaurant that has opened prematurely. Hulot, Barbara, and some other characters from the film end up there. The last sequence finds Hulot buying Barbara a bon voyage present and then she and her fellow travelers head back to the airport.
Shot in 70mm, Tati makes clear right from the airport sequence he is going to make great use of the space available, using long takes of wide shots with a great deal of business happening throughout. The nameless characters move with rigidness, moving in straight lines and making sharp, right turns when changing direction. By the end of the film, most of the characters are moving in a circle, a traffic circle specifically, and Tati hints it is like a carousel with the music and a motorcycle passenger who moves up and down.
Throughout the film, Tati repeats the idea that architecture of new, modern buildings is impersonal and separates people. At the office building, a passing laborer asks a security guard if he may have a light for his cigarette unaware a window separates them. The workers are shown in little cubicles. When Hulot sees the man who is supposed to be escorting him to his appointment in a building next door, he leaves and chases after him unaware what he is seeing is the man’s reflection from another part of the building they were in. At the apartments, the residents appear as if they are interacting with each other, but are separated by their walls. The voyeurism this sequence creates for the viewer is similar to Jimmy Stewart’s in Rear Window.
Unfortunately, Tati and his team do too good a job creating alienation and isolation because the film’s first hour is boring and not very engaging. Hulot is the most prominent character yet he is uninteresting and lacks personality throughout. Playtime’s main flaw is that it suffers from being too cerebral. There’s too much focus on presenting the ideas and not enough on their delivery. They would have been better served blended into a story with emotional resonance. The humor falters in the same way. Most of it is either mediocre or is understood on an intellectual level; however, nothing elicits visceral laughter until the Royal Garden sequence when order gives way to chaos, but too much time has been wasted getting there.
Criterion does their typical marvelous job of culling together Special Features. Au-delà de “Playtime” is a brief, behind-the-scenes short. “Tati Story” presents a 20-minute biography on the man, and Gavin Millar interviews him in “Jacques Tati in Monsieur Hulot’s Work” from BBC’s Omnibus in 1976. The interview takes place at the Hotel de la Plage made famous in M. Hulot’s Holiday, and while it is a very interesting piece, considering the amount of time devoted to each film, this extra seems better suited included with Holiday.
There is an audio Q & A with Tati from Playtime’s U.S. debut at the 1972 San Francisco Int’l Film Festival, and a video interview with script supervisor Sylvette Baudrot, who worked on three Tati films. “Cours du soir” is a 1967 short film with Tati teaching a night class about miming and physical comedy. It includes a number of buts including a return to his postman character from his feature-film directorial debut Jour de fête.
The Blu-ray is presented in 1080p with a 1.85:1 aspect ratio. The color scheme in the first half of the film, centers around gray, almost looking monochrome. The use of colors then becomes noticeable in the Royal Garden sequence. Defects in the print are noticeable during the opening credits, but have been repaired throughout the film. The improvement in the visuals by the remastering process is evident when footage from the film is shown during the special features.
Tati created two soundtracks for the film, French (LPCM 2.0) and International (Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo). Music and sound effects are of the most importance and can be clearly heard with the latter usually exaggerated for comedic effect. The dialogue occasionally rises above background noise by Tati’s choice.
In the Special Features, both Monty Python member Terry Jones in his video introduction and film historian Phillip Kemp in his scene commentary refer to needing to see the film multiple times, and even in different seating location, in order to appreciate Playtime, but if the film is not successful connecting with an audience member on its first viewing, the notion of revisiting it is for a daunting challenge.