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Film / Playtime

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Playtime (also spelled Play Time) is a 1967 French comedy film directed by and starring Jacques Tati.

It is the third of four films in which Tati played his signature character of Monsieur Hulot, following Mr. Hulot's Holiday and Mon Oncle. Here he expanded on his previous style and created a film with a greater scope than ever. It tells no cohesive story but is a set of loosely-connected vignettes, with a sort of running theme about the alienation and anomie created by modern life and technology.

M. Hulot is visiting a steel-and-glass office tower somewhere in a very ultra-modern, antiseptic Paris that looks very different from the old Paris that he knows and loves. He has a meeting with a man in the office tower, but he misses his meeting, gets lost, and spends much of the movie wandering around the bewildering office mazes.

Meanwhile, a young American woman named Barbara is part of a tour group mostly comprising other, older American women. The group seems to be spending a lot of its time in this decidedly un-scenic part of Paris, visiting a trade fair with many new household gadgets on display, even as Barbara would much prefer to see more of Hulot's old Paris. Eventually Hulot and Barbara meet up at a brand new upscale restaurant that is having a lot of difficulties on its opening night.

To make this film Tati borrowed a whole bunch of money and built enormous sets—namely, everything in the movie: the buildings, the airport set, the glass-walled apartments, the streets— in a gigantic complex called "Tativille." He took three years and spent 17 million francs. The film failed at the box office and Tati lost everything, including his production company, the rights to his movies, and his own home. His career as a director was effectively derailed for the rest of his life. It is, however, still hailed by critics as his masterpiece.

Playtime provides examples of:

  • Ascetic Aesthetic: The whole office building that Hulot bumbles through is designed to look very clean and shiny and new and ultra-modern; the whole effect is off-putting and alienating.
  • Bilingual Dialogue: For some reason Mr. Lacs the businessman talks to his underling in English but the underling responds in French.
  • Brick Joke: Giffard walks right into a glass door while trying to catch Hulot. A later scene shows him coming home with a bandage over his nose.
  • Call-Back: Barbara keeps opening glass doors in this drab, office tower neighborhood of Paris, and seeing reflections of glorious Paris landmarks. Once she sees the Eiffel Tower, once she sees the Arc de Triomphe, once the Sacré-Cœur Basilica, once the Luxor obelisk.
  • Color Motif: The whole film is colored in tones of gray everywhere. Tati apparently wanted to make a color film that looked like it was black and white. This makes the occasional uses of colorful background, like the old lady's corner flower stand, much more dramatic.
    • Notably, at the end, when the irrepressible chaos of humanity has won a victory of sorts over the forces of order, things are getting more colorful. A child is toting around a red balloon. After almost all the cars in the whole movie have been dark gray or black, there are more colorful cars in the traffic, as well as a bright red and bright green car which are being serviced in a garage.
  • Creepy Cleanliness: The whole Paris/Tativille scene. It doesn't create fear, but a great sense of distress.
  • Crushing Handshake: A gag. A man extends his hand to Hulot—but his eyeglasses are in his hands. Hulot grasps the man's hand and breaks his glasses.
  • Eiffel Tower Effect: A rather unusual use of this trope. A single shot of the Eiffel Tower in the far distance, contrasting strongly against all the steel and glass and chrome of the area where the story is set, is a startling reminder that yes, this is Paris. This is repeated shortly thereafter when Barbara is surprised to see a vivid reflection of the Eiffel Tower in a glass door that she's opening.
  • "El Niño" Is Spanish for "The Niño":
    Barbara: How do you say "drugstore" in French?
    Hulot: "Drugstore."
  • Funny Background Event: Some of the gags are very unobtrusive. There is a travel agency in the office building booking flights, and their windows are decorated with posters of tourist destinations—Mexico, Stockholm, Hawaii, others. The thing is though, all the posters are the same, showing the same boring rectangular office building. (In fact, the same boring office building that is all over this Paris business district in the movie.)
  • Ghostly Glide: One woman in an ornate dress glides in an odd manner rather than walking, drawing curious looks from more than one person at the restaurant.
  • Going Fur a Swim: Sort of—it's a negligee, not a swimsuit. But the dynamic is the same when a woman arriving at the restaurant opening shows that she can't hand over her fur coat to the coat check lady because she's only wearing a negligee underneath.
  • Leave the Camera Running: Many shots here are pretty long.
  • Match Cut: At the very end Barbara unwraps the scarf Hulot gave her, and finds a sprig of lily-of-the-valley inside the box. The film then cuts to the street lights over the highway to the airport, which are very similar in shape.
  • Missed Him by That Much: Hulot and Giffard, the man Hulot is trying to meet in the office building, have a series of extraordinary near misses. At one point Hulot is only yards away from Giffard, but runs out a door because he sees Giffard's reflection across the street in glass and mistakes it for the real man.
    • Subverted later in the film. After spending all day just barely missing each other, Hulot and Giffard simply run into each other outside the restaurant, conclude their business together, and go their separate ways without issue.
  • Order Versus Chaos: A running theme of the movie. The antiseptic, extreme cleanliness and order of the office park universe of the first part of the movie is an example of Order, and it comes off as depressing. Chaos is the second half of the movie, where the restaurant literally comes apart bit by bit, until the end the place is a wreck, and the guests are having a grand time.
  • Quieter Than Silence: Many scenes are shot in very quiet areas where what would be background sounds are intensified. The scene where M. Hulot is waiting in a lobby with another man stands out; the man's routine action in clicking a pen and writing in a notebook sound like the apocalypse.
  • Running Gag:
    • The clattering noise Giffard's shoes make on the tiles of the office building.
    • The one doorman at the restaurant who keeps lending bits of his uniform to others who have lost/damaged theirs, until by the end he is dressed in rags.
    • The drunk at the restaurant bar who keeps falling off his stool. After the third time someone sets the stool upside down and puts the drunk inside the legs, which hold him up like support beams.
    • Also at the restaurant, a particular fish is prepared at a particular table approximately half a dozen times, each time by a different waiter, including one subversion which reveals it's not even the same people seated at the table with the same fish, before cutting back to a cut where it's the original group (but still with the same fish, which by this time must be heavily overseasoned).
  • Shining City: The capital of France in this film.
  • Silence Is Golden:
    • Typically for a Tati film there isn't a lot of dialogue, and what dialogue there is, is mostly irrelevant chatter.
    • One entire scene, where Hulot visits his old friend and the friend's family in the friend's ultramodern glass-walled apartment, is shot without any sound at all, or rather with the camera outside getting only the sound of traffic as the conversation goes on inside.
    • A running gag at the trade show has a German company showcasing "Golden Silence" doors that are designed to close quietly. When the company representative loses his temper, he tries to vent his frustration by slamming the door, and fails miserably.
  • Smash Cut: The film ends with Barbara's tour group bus headed to the airport in the evening. We see the traffic lights coming on in the twilight as the bus passes. There's a shot of the road, the traffic lights in the twilight, and the airport in the distance. Then there's a smash to the same scene in the pitch black of night, with the airport and the traffic lights shining in the darkness. Then the movie ends.
  • Soft Glass: Hulot bumps his head into the glass door of the restaurant—and it shatters into a million pieces. Thereafter, the doorman simply holds the doorknob out in space and pretends to open a door.
  • Untranslated Title: A rare example in that this French film has an original title in English (the French title would probably be Récréation).
  • Visual Pun: A priest stands below the big letter "O" in a neon sign, which lights up to make it appear he has a halo.