Playtime

culture

Black Book dir. Paul Verhoeven

I love Jacques Tati. Almost nothing cheers me up as quickly as watching one of his films, which is odd really, given that Tati was a very visual, physical comedian, and that isn't normally the kind of thing I enjoy. But I just have to watch a few minutes of Monsieur Hulot walking -- leaning forward, as if into a stiff headwind -- and I'm in fits of laughter.

I've seen 'Monsieur Hulot's Holiday' many times, but recently we've rented some of his other films, and watched 'Playtime' last night. It wasn't a success when first released, and eventually bankrupted Tati, because he spent a fortune building what amounted to an entire town for the set. For those reasons, I wasn't sure that I would enjoy it as much as the other films, but I thought it was wonderful.

Tati films contain very little in the way of plot, but the plot of Playtime -- such as it is -- concerns the efforts of Monsieur Hulot to meet someone in an enormous modern office block. In this film, as in most of the others, Hulot is a kind of passive entropy generator. The world starts out clean and ordered, but when Hulot comes on the scene he unwittingly sets up a chain of events which result in chaos, by doing nothing more than wandering around in a benevolent but bewildered fashion.

It's particularly clear in Playtime that this is a good thing: the clean, modern world depicted at the start of the film is sterile and alienating to humans. We see an elderly porter trying to contact the man Hulot has come to meet using a high-tech bank of switches and lights. It takes him several minutes of tentatively pressing buttons (getting incomprehensible patterns of flashing lights and beeps in return) before he actually manages to communicate with a person. The building is so vast and uniform that Hulot gets hopelessly lost within a short while of arriving. Considering it was made in the 60s, Playtime feels like a modern, satirical film about the perils of modern architecture and technology. When things start to unravel later in the film, the world feels like a much warmer and more friendly place, partly because the chaos means that people actually talk to one another.

There are some wonderfully clever visual puns in the film. A group of female American tourists are all wearing floral hats, and at the restaurant, a waiter appears to be watering their hats with champagne. The film is supposed to be set in Paris, but it is so modern and anonymous that it could be anywhere. However, occasionally when characters open the ubiquitous glass doors, they see the Eiffel Tower, or some other landmark reflected in the door. There's also a brilliant joke about a patent 'silent' door, being shown at a kind of Ideal Home Exhibition. For complicated reasons, the Director of the company believes that Hulot is the man who has been rifling through their office doors, and shouts at him for his presumption before flouncing off through his silent door, slamming it -- completely noiselessly -- behind him. I'm going to have to watch it again soon, because I'm sure that there were probably lots of jokes I missed.

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