Look about you and you’ll see there’s always something funny happening. – Jacques Tati
Imagine a Paris of the future, as envisioned by someone in the 60s. The city landscape is a series of towering glass and concrete constructions, filled with uninviting black, vinyl modernist furniture and efficient businessmen wearing indistinguishable dark suits. The only glimpse of the remaining romantic image of Paris is a ghostly reflection of the Eiffel Tower in the polished glass door of a high-rise building. Offices are operated by incomprehensible switchboard systems that would have made HAL bewildered; trade shows supply visitors with identical looking furnishings and pointless implements of efficiency, like doors that can be slammed without making a sound, or trash cans shaped like Grecian columns; and every apartment, airport, building lobby and street corner looks exactly the same.
Sounds devastating, I know.
Somehow, director Jacques Tati managed to fill this drab, colorless world with an assortment of characters and plot turns, creating one the most lighthearted and whimsical spectacles I’ve seen in a long while.
In 1967, Tati wrapped up three years of filming (including 9 months of editing) of Play Time, his third film featuring an endearingly bumbling character named Monsieur Hulot, played by the director himself. The movie was a grand undertaking shot entirely in 70mm, with elaborately constructed sets and a stereophonic soundtrack that was quite advanced for the time. It was also a tremendous financial flop that sent Tati into bankruptcy.
The best way to go into the film is without expectations, only to come out smiling. The title is appropriate – the movie is a farce, but such a sweet and kind-hearted one, playful yet extremely stylized. Any plot description, long or short, won’t convey the effects of the meticulous character choreography, the clever visual humor, or the deliciously crisp audio track. However, Play Time’s basic synopsis is such: through a series of coincidental interactions, two bewildered characters (Hulot, with his too-short pants and smoking pipe, and a young American woman traveling with a guided tour group) barely cross paths, while trying to navigate the confusing maze of downtown Paris. The two finally meet at a new restaurant – so new, in fact, that the construction workers are still building parts while the hosts welcome their first diners to the grand opening. Everything that could go wrong, does, and the result is a chaotic, tremendous, swinging party that would have made Peter Sellers well up with pride.
Thirty years after the film’s release, Tati’s daughter Sophie Tatichieff delivered forty canisters of the original 70mm print to the Arane labs in Paris for restoration. While the film hadn’t suffered chemical damage, many bad splices and scratches from extensive use made the restoration process that much more challenging. Four years later, in 2002, the new 70mm print was screened at Cannes, with 8 extra minutes of original director’s footage that was missing from 30 years of prior screenings. Based off the newly restored 70mm print, Criterion released a collectible DVD, and Janus (the rights holder) set up screenings. (Any dedicated film geeks interested in the restoration process should read this write up from Jean-Rene Faillot, who led the project. )
The 70mm print is not currently scheduled to screen in the US any time soon (having played at the Castro Theater in San Francisco a couple months ago as part of the 70mm Film Festival that included Tron). However, those of you in Tucson, Arizona will be happy to know that a 35mm screening is on The Loft’s calendar (Dec 7-8).
[Please give a warm welcome to our marvelous new guest blogger, Tanya Vrodova. When asked how she would like to be introduced to our readership, the enigmatic lady replied, tongue firmly planted in cheek, "the power of my imagination is only paralleled by my massive cleavage." Then, with a melodious cackle, she snatched the string of pearls from my neck, leaped into a rumbling Daimler and sped away. I think she'll be quite at home here, don't you? ~Mer]