Movie of the Month: Playtime (1967)

Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before and we discuss it afterwards. This month Hanna made Britnee, Brandon, and Boomer watch Playtime (1967).

Hanna: My taste in film—especially comedies—was heavily influenced by the movies my dad watched.  He seemed to be especially enamored with movies about men successfully and improbably bumbling their way through circumstances that are totally beyond their comprehension with fantastic bouts physical comedy (Charlie Chaplin in The Great Dictator and Peter Sellers The Pink Panther are notable favorites).  Those films helped foster a love for absurd comedy in general, especially in relation to everyday helplessness in the face of bureaucracy (I am a big fan of The Trial and Brazil) and our attempts to convince ourselves that the world isn’t totally confounding most of the time.  About a year ago I stumbled onto Playtime (1976) while perusing through the Kanopy website, and it managed to unite all of those wonderful threads—a hapless man shuffling through confounding obstacles, the unsettling prospect of navigating inhuman systems, and the natural delights of an good old-fashioned goof—into a gorgeous comedy that shimmers up into my mind at least once a month.

Playtime, directed by Jaques Tati, follows an assortment of characters—namely, a Parisian in his mid-50s named Monsieur Hulot (played by Tati) and an American tourist named Barbara (played by Barbara Dennek)—ambling through a variety of settings in a grayscale Kraftwerk version of 1960s Paris. The film begins in an airport (which is so devoid of identity that I mistook for a hospital for the first few minutes) as groups of tourists leave and enter Paris, and follows them into an absurd rendering of downtown Paris, a giant gray set populated by tourists and businessmen and an sea of monolithic steel and glass structures. It is here that we meet Hulot, who seems to be in the city on some sort of business, but is so completely baffled by the city that he’s not really capable of accomplishing much of anything.  Next, we follow Hulot into a bizarre gadget trade show, then out of Paris’s commercial center and into a domestic one; he runs into an old friend, who invites him to see his “ultramodern” apartment complex, a sleek set of gray cubes with glass walls facing the street (very modern, and a voyeur’s delight). Once Hulot leaves the apartment, we follow a group of young American tourists to the disastrous opening of The Royal Garden, an upscale restaurant and club with such shoddy and poorly planned construction that it begins to fall apart before the guests arrive. The film ends on the morning of the following day, as tourists prepare to leave for their homelands and Parisians prepare for work.

These distinct environments, which connect to form the absolute heart of the film, were part of an elaborate set built for Playtime called Tativille, which covered six acres of land in southern France; its construction added significantly to the film’s production period (three years) and budget ($15.4 million euros today), and was burned down after production ended.  Tativille radiates a kind of colorless disorientation through its impenetrable grayness, its blocky monotony, and its perpetual electric buzz that perfectly illustrates the surreal experience of living in a world that opposes organic engagement.  The comedy in Playtime rests on the tension between existing in and navigating vast technological and bureaucratic systems, which are both unnecessarily complex and hopelessly illogical. In an early scene, for instance, Hulot carefully considers a map containing absolutely no helpful information in an attempt to orient himself in an office building, only to find that he is standing in an elevator that is quickly rising many, many floors away from the man he’s supposed to be meeting.  In one of the film’s most iconic moments, he witnesses a terribly inefficient file transfer in a perfectly arrayed rat maze of cubicles.

What I like most about this tension, though, is that human connection does persevere sometimes, especially in the latter half of the film: restaurant patrons sing old songs together amid the restaurant’s wreckage, pipelayers collaborate to sneak a glass of beer in the morning, and life goes on.  It’s nice (and naïve, given the current moment) to imagine that technological, bureaucratic, and capitalist systems around us might just be baffling, as opposed to actively toxic and harmful.  Britnee, how did you feel about the environments in Playtime?  Do you think the world Tati built is still relevant?  How do you think those environments would have changed if Playtime was made today?

Britnee: It took me a while to realize that the film wasn’t set in a hospital, so I was relieved to read that you got the same hospital vibes in the first scene.  Everything about each environment felt so sterile.  I would usually find nothing but discomfort in such plain and ultra-clean environments, but given the current COVID-19 circumstances, I felt at ease.  I’m also surprised by how interesting the each environment turned out to be.  I was fascinated by the restrooms in the airport (Confession: I love exploring different types of public restrooms in general).  They were built just like an office cubicle, and offered no privacy for the men walking in to use it.  That’s the thing with the cubicle structure that is ever so present in this movie.  While it seems like a cubicle offers privacy, it really doesn’t.  It gives you just enough privacy to think you’re hidden, but you aren’t.  Parts of you are still seen and your movements and discussions are still clearly heard by others.  You’re just contained in a place where everyone knows where to find you, sort of like a lab rat in some sick experiment.  I work in a cubicle, so I’m speaking from experience.  It’s the worst.

I’m also just finding out about Tativille, and I’m so blown away.  An entire city built from scratch, only to be burned to the ground and never seen again.  RIP Tativille.  Whether Tativille would still be relevant today is a tricky question.  Modern office spaces are moving towards having more open work spaces, with no more cubicles and glass walls and doors.  Even modern homes are typically built or renovated with an open floor plan, where walls are being torn down to create more opportunities for togetherness.  The separated style of the airport, business office, and trade show of Tati’s world would be a bit different today.  However, the minimalistic look of the building’s interior and exterior would most definitely be relevant.  I can’t help but think of the overpriced, cheaply built homes, apartment buildings, and office buildings popping up all over New Orleans.  They appeal to many—mainly newcomers to the city—with their modern, lifeless look.  So much so that a plain three-bedroom shotgun home can easily go for half a million dollars within a week of popping up out of nowhere.  Even modern restaurants popping up around New Orleans are similarly styled to the one in Playtime, with a bar that looks like a science lab instead of an actual bar.  I truly think that a modern day Tativille would not look that much different than the one from 1967.  It would be a little more open but still just as soulless in design.

I found a lot of humor in the group of American tourists. It made me think about my trip to Paris a few years ago that I took with a group of people. There was a time where the majority of the group almost passed out with joy at the sight of a Starbucks, which I couldn’t understand at all.  Why would anyone go to Starbucks while in Paris, surrounded by so many unique cafés that aren’t found anywhere else in the world?  These were the same folks who were amazed by the huge steel buildings in the business district while bored with the charming cobblestone streets of Montmatre.  This is one of the many reasons why I travel solo nowadays.  Brandon, were there any particular characters or groups that you found to be funny?

Brandon: Honestly, judging Playtime‘s merits as a comedy is where I struggle most in my appreciation for the film  overall.  It reminds me a lot of over-budget American comedies of its era like What’s New Pussycat? & It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World that packed gigantic casts into sprawling runtimes, drowning out their intended madcap humor in a flood of flop sweat.  As a comedy, I am not convinced that Playtime is as screamingly funny as it needs to be to justify the effort that went into constructing it (or the effort that goes into watching it).  Every single gag is precisely designed & picked over so that no hair is left out of place, yet the overall comedic payoff amounts to the polite chuckles of recognition that East Coast Intellectuals get out of reading New Yorker cartoons.  On one hand, I do believe that was the intended effect of the piece — to stimulate the intellect of its viewers by drolly poking fun at the absurdity of Modern Living.  After all, Chaplin had already utilized the same cinematic slapstick medium to attack the same satirical target decades earlier for full-bellied laughs in Modern Times; it makes sense that Tati would want to push the artform into a new, exciting direction in his own revision.  Still, I found myself struggling to adjust my personal metrics of what makes a successful comedy while watching Playtime, since I’m trained to expect laugh-a-minute gags from the genre — something this movie isn’t particularly interested in providing.

If there is any one sequence that I found especially funny, it’s the hip, modernist restaurant’s disastrous opening night.  There is something incredibly satisfying about watching a pristinely mapped-out, designed-to-death space gradually break down into drunken chaos as that sequence progresses.  As Hanna mentioned, it is one of the few instances of the film where the natural disorder of humanity actually breaks through the monotonous control of technology that makes most of the film feel so sterile, and that payoff was a huge relief.  I don’t know that any one character within that sequence stuck out to me as a favorite, because this is a film that generally follows the progress of commotion rather than following the progress of particular characters.  Monsieur Hulot himself doesn’t enter the restaurant until well after the wheels have already fallen off among other diners and the staff, and he’s ostensibly the film’s protagonist.  I did find a lot of humor-of-recognition chuckles in the predicaments of the anonymous restaurant staff, however: the bartender having to work around an ornamental wall hanging that impeded the practical motions of his job; the waiter whose uniform gradually breaks down as the unfinished jobsite slashes at his armor; the doorman who continues to pretend that nothing is amiss hours after the glass door he is in charge of shatters, etc.  The restaurant sequence reminded me a lot of the specific indignities & absurdities of my own years working in the service industry, which combined with my general thirst for unstructured chaos to elicit most of the film’s biggest laughs.

I might struggle with assessing Playtime as a comedy, but as a dystopian vision of the way that technology worship is slowly homogenizing all culture & art into one amorphous, spiritless Hell, the movie is absolutely genius — undeniably so.  Although most of the film’s characters are playing tourist throughout Paris, we only see famous monuments like the Eiffel Tower & the Arc de Triomphe in the reflections of mundane skyscrapers’ endless grids of windows.  The sterile airport’s lobby advertises travel posters for other exotic, romantic destinations — each with the same uniform super-buildings waiting to bore & confound visitors in a new climate.  There are many ways in which technology is incredibly helpful in connecting the world as a communication tool, but it’s also aiding capitalistic forces that would prefer the world entirely homogenized so that it’s easier to control & market to.  In some respects, this dystopian vision of Paris is no different than would be if it were set in Tokyo or São Paulo or downtown Houston, Texas.  All distinguishing cultural features have been effectively, systematically erased, which is a loss that all major cities’ populations are currently fighting to prevent — lest their communities transform into endlessly repeating grids of skyscrapers & condos.  If this is a work that relies on the humor of recognition, it’s a success in how it reflects my own fears of New Orleans’s trajectory towards corporatized monoculture in the post-Katrina years (a disturbing trend Britnee already noted earlier).  Except, I feel just as much frustration & despair in this seemingly inevitable arc towards global singularity as I do humor in its relatable minute-to-minute absurdities, if not more so.

Boomer, how did you find Playtime‘s balance between humor and despair?  Were you more affected by its dystopian vision of a globally homogenized future or by its optimistic assertion that the quirky disorder of humanity will always find a way to burst through the seams (as in the chaotic restaurant opening)?

Boomer: I like that Hanna mentioned Brazil in her introduction, because that was the first thing that came to mind during the scene in which Hulot waits as one of the people with whom he is meeting walks towards the camera from very far away, moving at a rapid place but taking a nearly interminable time to reach the foreground destination.  This film is dystopian, but I never would have defined the film that way if the pump had not been primed, so to speak.  I tend to conceptualize dystopias—Oceania, Panem, the Cardassian Union—as monolithic and oppressive by nature and intention; the bureaucratic nature of dystopia is an effect and not a cause, a consequence of the indifference and pragmatism needed to prop up and propagate malice, to give it credibility through structure.  Playtime is the story of the opposite, where bureaucracy gives birth to depersonalization rather than the other way round.

As for the humor . . . Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is (not quite accurately) cited as the first feature-length animated film, and the Disney-propagated narrative is that the majority of resistance to the film’s creation was the idea that no one would want to watch a feature-length cartoon.  To an extent, Playtime is that feature-length cartoon that a standard audience would find difficult to complete — cutesy sound effects accompanying the movement of actors filmed on a Synecdoche, New Yorkian labyrinth film set that evokes a depressed Tex Avery.  At nearly two hours, it’s perhaps slightly too long for me to enjoy.  Unusually for me and my normal tastes, the film’s narrative actually acts against it, as I enjoyed the individual vignettes well enough in and of themselves (give or take a few), but forcing an interconnectedness between them extended the length unnecessarily.  For a film that foregoes “plot” so much as it does, what filaments of story that exist strangle much of the comedy for me.  I would have preferred if we had cut straight to Hulot’s visit with this old friend in his ultramodern exhibitionist apartment rather than having the two run into each other and Hulot having to be convinced.  There are so many fun and enticing images in that section: the different television sets bathing two households in identical light, the way that each family and their guest(s) seem to be starting at each other at certain moments as if in a conversational lull, the framed, boxed-in portrait of home life that may be a commentary on the banality of the domestic sitcom, for which it could easily be mistaken.  But the bracketing of this sequence with Hulot’s reluctance to arrive and his desperation to leave reduces it to be less than the sum of its parts.  So I was equally affected by its quirky humanity?

I don’t want to be down on Playtime or unnecessarily critical, because I’m glad I’ve seen it.  My favorite gags were the aforementioned filing sequence, Hulot and his colleague seeing each other reflected in the glass of a different building and mistaking their positions despite being within feet of each other, and every time poor Barbara got harassed by her clingy friend while just trying to enjoy Paris (there’s not that much dialogue in the film, but 25% of it consists of “Come on, Barbara! C’mere, Barbara!”).  I just feel like I got shuffled about in it, which I suppose could be the point.

Lagniappe

Boomer: I was terribly disappointed that the electronic broom only had headlights. I was imagining a Roomba on a stick.

Britnee: The Royal Garden restaurant scene is both one of the longest and one of the funniest scenes in Playtime. A turbot à la royale is being prepared and seasoned tableside for several diners, but it never gets eaten. It’s wheeled around the restaurant while getting salted and peppered numerous times, and for some reason, I found it to be so funny while also being very anxious about it at the same time.

Hanna: There’s a moment in the beginning of Playtime where an American tourist essentially forces an older woman selling flowers on the street to pose for a photo. The woman’s flowers are one of the only sources of organic color in the movie, and the photo-op is ostensibly an attempt to capture the rustic essence of Paris. The shot is repeatedly interrupted by other tourists, businessmen, and young Parisian ne’er-do-wells walking through the frame. When they’re finally gone, a man in military garb approaches the two women and asks them both to pose in his photo. This scene reminded me so much of tourists in the French Quarter, especially in the context of the city’s gentrification and the homogenous gutting of shotguns across the city; people will continue to document the vestiges of a city’s cultural identity as if they’re ubiquitous, even when they’ve been reduced to purely cosmetic touches on an anonymous backdrop.

Brandon: The only other Tati movie I have seen to date is his debut feature, Jour de fête.  It’s a much, much funnier movie than Playtime in terms of staging laugh-a-minute gags.  It’s also a much less distinguished movie, creatively speaking, as it merely feels like Tati emulating the Silent Era comedy stylings of Buster Keaton & Charlie Chaplin without adding much innovation of his own.  Like Picasso learning to paint naturalistically before he devolved into Cubist mayhem, Jour de fête feels a lot like Tati earning the right to play with the purpose & structure of traditional, vaudevillian comedy by proving he knows how to effectively play it straight.  If you want to see Tati in full, unrestrained goofball mode before his work got more intellectually heady, it’s a wonderfully funny film from start to end.  It’s just not as memorably grandiose or artistically mannered as Playtime, so it’s not nearly as essential.

Upcoming Movies of the Month
June: Brandon presents Funeral Parade of Roses (1969)
July: Boomer presents Marjoe (1972)
August: Britnee presents Three Women (1977)

-The Swampflix Crew

4 thoughts on “Movie of the Month: Playtime (1967)

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