House / Home Screening Series No 3 – Playtime (1967)

(Shown on 13th June 2011 at Birkbeck Cinema)

France • 124 minutes.

Playtime has the psychology of a horror film: it at once demonises and fetishises its subject – Modernist architecture. Although often described as a satire, Jacques Tati clearly held a greater ambivalence about modern architecture than this would suggest (‘I am not against [it]. I only think that as well as the permit to build, there should also be a permit to inhabit.’). The lengths to which the French director went in creating and venerating Tativille –  a full scale city set outside Paris that included a working lift, its own power plant and multi-storey edifices, and which brought Tati to bankruptcy – would not be imaginable as an act of spite. It is only with half a smirk that Tati chorally heralds the first appearance of one of his Mies Van De Rohe-style constructions.

Tati’s love for the environment stems from its pliancy for physical comedy (Playground would have made an equally apt title). Playtime is a training course for spotting the absurd in daily life. By submerging jokes within a wider frame and asking the viewer to edit and notice, to find parallels and coincidences, reappearances and reversals, it coaches us in scraping back the thin veneer of seriousness that hides the absurdity of all things. Instead of looking at Tativille as an expensive production design, we should look at it as a cheap star hire. What we  glimpse as a throwaway set will reappear twenty minutes later from a totally unexpected angle and to our shock, only feet away from where we’re now positioned. The uniformity of the set allows Tati a wonderful spatial elasticity.

While Tati’s craft is in producing gags of mechanical complexity, the devices at their best have the flair and immediacy of life itself[1]. The actions in the film are usually held at a lifelike distance: we might see a pratfall through a window and not hear the sound. The naturalistic grace further extends the message of the ridiculous in every day life. Only a third of Playtime’s running time is spent in leisure (the perhaps overly-extended restaurant scene) but Tati’s spirit brings play into all spaces. While Hulot himself isn’t always centre-frame, by the time we reach the ronde/roundabout in the final scene, we see his spirit has overcome the Modernist austerity.[2]


Unlike other physical comedians where the mishaps are the result of their incapability, Tati’s pranks have an inevitability that demonstrates that the environment itself is at fault, not the man. The arbitrary and incompatible ordering of space is what Tati’s chaotic spirit strikes against. Although Playtime is seldom about the home, it provides, by negation, a subtle portrait of the qualities that the home provides. Warmth, comfort, privacy and repose are not to be found in Tativille. Not a moment passes in which the inhabitants are not so stunned by the modernity of their home that they must leap up to marvel at it. Even the chairs sigh, gasping at your effrontery of taking a moment’s rest.

Tati’s two technological shifts in this film emphasise his intentions.  Tati’s 70mm widescreen format allows for a panorama of human interaction. This broad view often shows the disconnection that technology creates. From a high angle, we can see the clerk answer a call with a piece of data that is within inches of the person requesting it. Similarly, a wide shot shows four families watching the same programme, separated only by a wall.

As always with Tati, there is highly creative use of sound, but this time with full stereophony. A genius for rendered sound is on display (the sound of the balls traveling along the electric broom handle, the click of heels down a vast hallway) but more importantly, the localized sound possible with stereophony allows Tati to focus attention within the wide frame (he considered the close up an inelegant practice). Watching with ears open becomes necessary as the viewer is often at a loss for the visual centre of the frame (Tati riffs upon this indeterminacy by creating a proliferating cast of pseudo-Hulots). The creator of the soundless door opines that his firm are ‘the first to study silence,’; Tati himself is just such a  student. By almost erasing dialogue, Tati’s prevents us from focusing solely on the speaker. It is this visual democracy that makes Playtime such a humane and hilarious delight.

[1] The instant in which The Royal Garden’s roof collapses is one that requires rewatching.

[2] ‘In the first part of Playtime, I direct the people to follow the architect’s guidelines. Everybody is filmed as if moving in straight lines and feeling prisoners of their surroundings. Modern architecture would like typists to sit straight, would like everyone to take themselves very seriously. In the first part of the film, the architecture plays a leading role but gradually, warm, contact and friendship as well as the individual I defend, take over this international setting and then neon advertisements make their entrance and the world starts to swirl and it all ends up in a merry-go-round. There are no more straight angles at the end of the film.’ Jacques Tati


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