Criticizing Modernity: Looking Back at Jacques Tati’s Playtime
BlueCat takes a look back at the 1967 French classic, Playtime, from auteur filmmaker, Jacques Tati.
Throughout his distinguished filmmaking tenure, influential French director, screenwriter, and actor, Jacques Tati (1907-1982), is credited with directing only six feature length films. One such film, Playtime, with its distinct mis-en-scène and hyper-realistic sound effects, is perhaps his most notable achievement. Developed over the course of nine years, it was shot from 1964 to 1967 entirely on 70mm film, a rarity even today. Released in 1967, the film follows two characters, a young American tourist, played by Barbara Dennek, and a bumbling, clumsy Frenchman, Monsieur Hulot, played by Tati himself.
Playtime takes on an almost experimental quality. Sounds and situations are often exaggerated, departing from both realism and the classical Hollywood style of filmmaking. It is comprised of six distinct sequences spanning a single day in 1960s Paris, with the film’s two main characters, Hulot and the unnamed tourist, connecting each sequence. There is minimal plot or story, which contributes to its experimental nature. What narrative is present is almost exclusively driven by Tati’s visual comedy, with very minimal dialogue, as his character stumbles through each sequence.
Playtime is also exceptional for its themes, critical of modernity and contemporary living. Tati utilizes the visual and aural aspects of film to make such criticisms. Playtime’s mis-en-scène is distinctly modern. Lines and angles are neat, and the sets are clean and simple, often rather cold and impersonal. Everything appears streamlined and efficient, despite the organized chaos depicted in many of the situations. However, Tati’s Hulot is antithetical to this structure. He dresses in khakis and beiges, with a long coat and fedora, in stark contrast to the fashionable grey suits worn by many of the surrounding male characters. Hulot often seems confused and befuddled by such structure, and much of the film’s comedy comes from Tati’s fish-out-of-water portrayal.
In one sequence, Hulot is perplexed by the enormously windowed apartments, which indicate a somewhat discomforting openness to the public, cold indifference to such openness, and the realization that people have become drone-like and habitual in their lives. This is reflected again in the film’s famous final sequence, in which cars move endlessly through a roundabout, set to carnival music, as if the roundabout were a carousel. Tati seems to convey the notion that, within such a structured modern society, people appear to navigate life naively, continuously moving, but never really going anywhere.
Playtime is also notable for Tati’s utilization of sound and how ideas can be conveyed with minimal dialogue, much of which occurs in the background and is not typically central to the narrative. Thus, the film’s progression relies heavily on Tati’s visual comedy, which is accompanied by distinct sound effects, often enhancing the sense of chaos and confusion. In the opening scene, a couple’s private conversation is interrupted by high-heeled footsteps echoing throughout the airport. A later sequence, in the Royal Garden restaurant, offers a cacophony of background noise and sound effects, from the band playing to the sounds of silverware clanking, as the façade of modernity is stripped away to reveal a more chaotic, seemingly enjoyable environment. Tati’s use of exaggerated and distorted sounds throughout the film seems to indicate a sense of strangeness and unfamiliarity in contemporary society.
Playtime’s ultra-sleek and modern visual style offers a view of Paris devoid of its historical landmarks and culture, and the sound effects distort the chaotic sense of reality within this hyper-organized structure. Such elements, sound and mis-en-scène in particular, seem to offer a critical view of modernity through the visual comedy of Monsieur Hulot’s attempts to navigate this new, unfamiliar society.
Playtime is a wonderfully strange film, both funny and thought provoking, conveying themes of modernity that still feel relevant today. It certainly is a film worth checking out for anyone interested in unique visual storytelling. If you struggle to convey meaning in your script through action, rather than dialogue, take a look at Tati’s masterfully crafted Playtime, part of the Criterion Collection, which can be streamed online via Hulu.
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