Jacques Tati’s “Play Time”

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]

16 Responses to “Jacques Tati’s “Play Time””

  1. wchambliss Says:

    Tanya, I couldn’t agree with you more about Playtime. It’s run-don’t-walk quality stuff. A 70mm viewing experience would likely cause my head to explode.

  2. gooby Says:

    First off, YAY!!!!

    Secondly, this film is beautiful! It has influenced so much of my work.

  3. Ben Morris Says:

    This is one of my all time favorite films. I love how Tati depicted the modern world as alienating, monotone and antiseptic; yet there is still something beautiful in his setting, a sterile beauty, but compelling nonetheless.

    The travels posters are one of my favorite little jokes in the film.

  4. Sean Says:

    I love Tati’s Hulot films. Have you guys heard about The Illusionist?


    Perhaps a prequel to Playtime (set in the late 50s)? If anyone can point me towards a copy of the footage that was screened at this year’s Cannes, I’d love to see it!

  5. Tanya Says:

    Hooray to Wayne, Gooby and Ben! Glad that the appreciation of this fine film is shared by many.

    Sean, I had no idea about the undirected Tati script being turned into an animated feature! Thank you for sharing. I was only able to find as much information as you already managed to uncover.

  6. Fritz Bogott Says:

    He bankrupted himself building a set intended to look like the future, and fifteen minutes later the film looked like a documentary of the recent past. The Gods of Irony meted out some stern punishment there.

    On a related note: Everyone without exception should buy a copy of the silent (no words) picture book “Le Jacquot de Monsieur Hulot”, ISBN 9782841567072. Parrots! Romance! Single-cylinder-engine bicycles!

  7. Chris L Says:

    Amazing! I saw some of this film in one of my classes a few years ago, and had completely forgotten about it. Looks like I need to find that Criterion disc!

  8. la mome neant Says:

    Aw, dear Coilhouse! Thanks so much for this article on my favorite director ever! I hope loads of your readers will check his movies.
    Sean, the movie you’re referring to might be Sylvain Chomet’s next feature. He allready directed a 1st animated movie, Les Triplettes de Belleville.

  9. Jerem Morrow Says:

    Sounds lovely.

    Und Welcome Tanya!

  10. Jerem Morrow Says:

    @la mome neant

    Les Triplettes de Belleville is wonderful! Any self-respecting animation aficionado should seek it out immediately.

  11. Tequila Says:

    In seeing the film now it hit the pulse of the future pretty dead on. At least in terms of being an almost eternal tourist perpetually lost. Much of its design too would no doubt be welcomed in many modern offices and public areas.

    The CC version is quite beautiful and the best choice for anyone who can’t make a screening let alone wait for a 70MM screening. Few places can really afford to do 70mm screenings anymore and the cost of such prints are only getting higher.

    CC also recently released Tati’s “Trafic” which is a fun film in its own right.

    Welcome Tanya! This was an excellent way to kick off your time here.

  12. A.P. Stilwell Says:

    Seconds on Tequila’s response, Ben and I have seen ‘Trafic’. To me, it’s appropriate in shifting Tati’s narrative to the cold, clinical confines that his city in ‘Playtime’ contains to the more serene French and German country-sides. The film also includes many gags which can go by or over a viewers head on first viewing (but, after ‘Playtime’, we can be honest that you can’t just watch a Tati film once). Luckily, owning the Criterion DVD I’ve managed to watch the film on three different occasions (with very different groups) and I come back each time noticing very subtle things in Tati’s visuals and storytelling. Granted, the film isn’t as “masterpiece-like” as ‘Playtime’, but it’s certainly not lacking in style, substance, originality, or quality.

    Interesting of note is the fact that Tati originally intended ‘Trafic’ to be a French-Dutch co-production, and was to be jointly directed alongside Dutch-man Bert Haanstra. Haanstra filmed the driver montages (picking noses, etc.) as well as the brilliant opening (which I was sure was Tati’s work) of people stepping over invisible wires inside the building where the car show is to be held. Apparently, Haanstra left after filming these sequences, due to his frustrations with Tati’s insistent unavailability. Of course, Tati’s funds ran out and the rest of the production was financed by a Swiss crew who were filming a documentary on the production.

    And I, too, am anxiously awaiting Silvain Chomet’s ‘The Illusionist’, though I’m dreading the fact that a U.S. distributor might be forced to change the title due to interference with a mediocre Edward Norton/Paul Giamatti film of the same title.

  13. Pierre Simone Says:

    Found this very interesting article about Tati and the Illusionist. http://www.nonfiction.fr/article-807-la_posterite_de_m_hulot.htm It is wrote in French but is easy enought to translate. Certainly brings up many questions about what we know about Tati and how his lost script is being misrepresented by Chomet.

  14. Scott Kaye Says:

    “Play Time” is not a future vision, c. 1967. It is very much a film set in 1967. It shares a lot in common with “2001: A Space Odyssey.” While Kubrick was busy making “2001” in London, Tati was making “Play Time” outside of Paris, both opting to film in the 65mm negative format for 70mm presentation. For a unique portrait of humankind in 1967-1968, one need only insert “Play Time” into the space within the famous match-cut from the bone to the spaceship in “2001;” indeed, Tati’s masterpiece fits into the thematic gap created by Kubrick’s 4 million year edit.

    For those within close proximity to UCLA, the restored 70mm version of “Play Time” will be screening in three weeks on 4 June 2009, and should not be missed. Having seen several times the 70mm version lovingly restored by Sophie Tatischeff, it is mandatory to see “Play Time” as Tati intended: in 70mm on a large screen with a full audience. Watching on DVD — even with the latest, fine Criterion reissue based on the restoration — is far from the same, rich experience that Tati intended and his daughter made possible for 21st Century audiences. It is a treat not to be missed.

    For Tati fans, the Cinematheque Francaise is celebrating Tati from April to August in Paris, with exhibitions, screenings, lectures, walking tours, etc. Anyone able to get to Paris this summer should not miss it. There was even a full-scale reconstruction of the Villa Arpel from “Mon Oncle,” through 3 May only…

  15. Mer Says:

    Thanks for that wealth of opinion and information, Scott.
    “Mandatory” though it might be, the majority of our readership does not reside near either LA or Paris. Alas. It certainly would be lovely to see the film as Tati intended, so lets all keep an eye out for screenings in our cities. Meantime, I’ll continue to deeply enjoy my copy of the Criterion reissue.

  16. Scott Kaye Says:

    Thank you, Mer. “Mandatory” was a poor word choice. “Desirable” is much more appropriate, and I fully realize the difficulty for almost everyone to see “Play Time” in 70mm. Seeing the restoration in any format is preferable to never experiencing it — especially if it is the fine Criterion reissue. It does screen in 70mm in NYC every 18 months or so, as it does in Los Angeles. The 70mm prints have made their way to Australia and Ireland that I know of. I leave it to my fellow devoted followers to exert some effort at keeping up with the screening schedule depending upon their own ability to attend. I will have to be content to spend two hours with “Play Time” since I am unable to go to Paris to see the “Summer of Tati” that the Cinematheque has going on. Here’s the website: http://www.cinematheque.fr/fr/expositions-cinema/tati/index/bienvenue.html detailing the festivities. Alas, as you state. I, of course, encourage all fans that can to come to UCLA on 4 June to see the 70mm restoration.

    My own passion for “Play Time” began over twenty years ago when, upon acquiring my first VCR, I would tape anything at any time that had 3 or 4 stars in the TV listings. So, “Play Time” was on in the middle of the night, and it was highly recommended. I’d never seen nor heard of Tati — and I’m a film-school graduate. I sat down to watch it by myself, and for the first fifteen minutes or so I was completely baffled. Then, miraculously, I laughed for the first time and realized, “Oh, it’s a COMEDY!” Hit rewind, stop, play. I’ve followed it ever since. I even bought the original Criterion DVD before I owned a DVD player. Among the many pleasant discoveries over the years has been that, despite having seen the film at least a couple of times, I learned that IT’S ALL A SET — a massive, constructed creation. Along with “2001,” it is one of the most-audacious artistic visions ever realized on film that I can think of, and that’s over a century of film. Above all, enjoy “Play Time.”