Throwback Thursday: Paris Is a Playground of the Senses in Playtime

Throwback Thursday examines films from the past, “classic” films that might not be in the current cultural zeitgeist but can still be important, interesting, fun, or all of the above.

Jacques Tati’s Playtime is a French film of artistic merit but doesn’t require much understanding of French cinema or the language to appreciate. Much like his previous pictures of Mr. Hulot’s Holiday and Mon Oncle, the picture takes the viewer to a lavish location where we follow multiple characters, dipping in and out of their stories, sometimes watching a handful of them in the same scene. The majority of the characters are tourists, venturing around Paris with wide eyes, visiting a dazzling metropolis of new technology and stunning design.

Every frame of Playtime has something interesting to look at, and Tati mostly leaves it up to the audience where they want to look. Take the opening scene in the airport, where the terminal is filled with scenes such as two people having a conversation, a janitor trying to clean up the floor, a desk clerk checking people in, and a tourist group just arriving in Paris. He lets our eyes wander; if we find ourselves bored with one character, a slight turn of our eyes can let us focus on a more engaging one. These characters are rarely boring in their environments; they’re always finding something fun and interesting to do as if they each occupy their own movie.

To maintain some grounding in a picture that treats the viewer like a fly on the wall, two central characters appear most often in the Paris setting. One is Barbara, an American tourist that finds herself the odd girl out in a group of middle-aged women. The other is the dapper and absent-minded Mr. Hulot, a character that has starred in Tati’s other comedies and is once more played by Tati himself. Even though most everyone in France seems to know Hulot, the viewer doesn’t have to be familiar with his previous films to appreciate his brand comedy.

Mr. Hulot looks over a cubicle farm.

Mr. Hulot looks over a cubicle farm, desperate to escape.

A classic scene involves Hulot venturing into a glass building for a scheduled meeting. While he waits in the lobby of glass walls and doors, he finds himself confused and fascinated by the odd furniture that sinks and makes noise with each sit. He’ll later find himself lost between floors where he scrambles around a cubicle farm like a mouse in a maze. Not only does this film predate and predict the prevalence of the cubicle farm, but also the absurdity of the tight and col workplace. As Hulot scurries around the cube walls, employee one calls employee two over the phone for him to read him a file. In order to attain the file, employee two walks out of his cube and opens a cabinet just outside employee one’s cube, only to return to his cube and chat over the phone. How impersonally perceptive this film was.

Tati presents several comedic settings and events that always keep the picture alive and kicking. The tourist group is eventually led to a new product expo of all sorts of strange new inventions. This includes a broom with headlights and a door that doesn’t make a sound when slammed, making it hard to leave in a huff without the sound of a thunderous door closing. Later, the tourists will venture into a classy restaurant that hasn’t finished construction. The manager scrambles to keep the building buzzing with patrons and churning out exceptional food. The ceiling eventually breaks, but it forms such an artistic mess that nobody inside seems to mind, continuing to chat and dance the night away.

Apartments in Paris with large windows, almost like an aquarium.

The big, aquarium-like apartments of Paris.

One of Tati’s best scenes in the film that perfectly encapsulates his use of the frame is when Hulot is invited into someone’s apartment for some evening fun. We don’t follow him inside, however, as the camera remains outside where we watch him through the large window. With only the sounds of cars passing by the street, we cannot hear their conversation, but can decipher enough of their body language and mannerisms to roughly understand what’s going on. The camera pans a little bit to the right and we can see the inside of another apartment where a couple is having a conversation. The camera then pans up and we can see another window with something else going on inside. There is so much to look at in these scenes as they stress the voyeurism of film where the viewer is allowed to peer into lives within a city.

To create such a surreal portrayal of Paris, the director constructed several large sets for his cinematic vision of the city, dubbed by many as “Tativille.” Set construction cost 17 million francs, required 100 construction workers, and took three years to finish. Constructing such gargantuan sets required so much money that Tati would take out loans to cover the mounting costs. He also didn’t spare any expense on shooting these gorgeous locations, opting to shoot on 70mm film and with stereophonic sound. Not everything could be an expensive endeavor, as the director settled on photographs for some of the backgrounds of the city and interiors of buildings.

Theatrical poster for Playtime.

Theatrical poster for Playtime.

Playtime remains one of my absolute favorite films for being so mesmerizing to the senses. It’s setting is urban and sterile, yet mysterious and colorful. The humor is warm and inviting, despite the camera being distant with long shots. Although French is spoken a handful of times, the humor is universal with its mostly physical and expression-driven comedy. So gorgeous is Playtime that I love coming back to it more than any other film, if only to peer into another corner of the screen and find something new.

This film can be found for rent on Amazon. It is currently unavailable via Netflix, but streaming offerings change frequently, so keep an eye out. Feel free to discuss further in the comments below; just keep it respectful.

If you think there’s a film Throwback Thursday should cover in the future, please let me know in the comments.

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