Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Jacques Tati & Playtime

Playtime is a crowded portmanteau, a kaleidoscope of behavioural patterns, a visual symphony in four movements. It is Tati’s most ambitious and expensive film (shot in 70mm), and his longest. Technically, it is a piece of virtuoso filmmaking. In numerous scenes as much is taking place in the background as in the foreground. The screen is perpetually ‘alive’, an animated mosaic which wholly justifies Tati’s predilection for using mostly non-actors. The enormous sets, built at Joinville and designed by Eugène Roman, are deceptive. They give no impression of a studio production. It has been generally assumed that the entire film was shot on location in and around Orly Airport. This would have been impractical given the scope of the film as a multi-faceted view of tourists, bureaucrats, restaurant diners, waiters and the passing parade.

Although people appear to be coming and going in haphazard fashion, every scene is carefully orchestrated. As the tourists check into their hotel, one recalls Lewis Stone in Grand Hotel, repeating the moribund observation: “People coming and going . . . nothing ever happens.” Tati observes something happening all the time. He shows us that life is becoming standardised. People foolishly pursue modernity for its own sake, and office workers are boxed in their cubicles like battery hens. But if one is aware of the underlying absurdities and the incongruities, humanity is preserved.

Not that Tati is all the time making profound comments on the human situation. This is, of course, a motivating factor, but he was always a showman in the music hall tradition and a mime artist. He didn’t want audiences to say “What a wonderful picture!” but to enjoy themselves. The enjoyment, especially in Playtime, lies in recognising details and situation which normally pass us by in our own busy lives. There is an exquisite scene, for example, where M. Hulot, trying hopelessly to make contact with an official whom he loses in corridors and around corners, sees him at last a short distance away. Determined not to lose sight of the man again, Hulot hurries across a concourse to get to him - only to discover he has been observing the man’s reflection in plate glass.

M. Hulot wanders in and out of the film like the host at a party who goes missing when the fun is at its best. Tati explained that Hulot is not the hero of Playtime. The main character, he insisted, is the décor, “and the heroes are the people who break it up.” Whimsically, he recalled that for Playtime the producers offered him a big budget for décor or Sophia Loren. He chose the décor because he disliked star names.

Playtime needs to be seen a number of times (preferably in 70mm) to be fully appreciated. At a first showing one is tempted to pick out bits and pieces, choice incidents and grand moments, while ignoring or forgetting the rest. The impassive man standing at a bistro counter, eating a snack while Hulot looks at him, remains embedded in the memory. But why? Perhaps he personifies anonymity in a consumer society, the automatic consumer of tasteless food. He does not react and stares blankly as he carries on munching.

Tati told Penelope Gilliatt that he likes his films to be about everybody but also about nobody big. In Playtime we see ourselves as Tati sees us, without mockery or condescension. He breaks the plastic chains that bind us.

Ray Seaton

Jacques Tati's Playtime screens on Saturday and Sunday, October 9th & 10th, at 15.35.

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