Much like Charlie Chaplin, one of his key inspirations, Jacques Tati was one of a kind. While most filmmakers sought to use the cinematic medium as a platform to tell stories, Tati used it as a hide from which he could observe real life. Unlike the highly popular Nouvelle Vague movement though, which had recently swept across the landscape of French Cinema, Tati wasn’t interested in addressing the social and political upheavals of the day. Instead, it was the absurd aspects of France’s (and in-turn the rest of the Western World’s) progressive society that inspired his visually driven films.
Looking back over his brief filmography now, it’s sometimes hard to wholly connect with the French filmmaker’s meditations. Particularly during two of his earlier directorial efforts, Jour de Fete and Mon Oncle. Like all of Tati’s films, both were enhanced by the director’s innate capability for conjuring satirically sharp swipes at French life. His recurrent theme of accentuating France’s growing infatuation with preposterous architectural design is welded into the very foundations of the Villa Arpel in Mon Oncle. However, the film as a whole, much like Jour de Fete, jars under the weight of Tati’s vision. As if he was overwhelmed by the magnitude of his ideas. Ergo, both films suffer from a detaching sense of restraint throughout, which prohibits the audience from ever feeling the full effect of the filmmaker’s cogitations.
In contrast to this, Playtime, Tati’s audacious 1967 masterpiece that’s now been restored with a sparkling 4K restoration, is an all-encompassing experience of a joyously chaotic nature. True to the title, Playtime is Tati at his most creatively vivacious. With the studio-built Parisian set (known to the film’s crew as ‘Tativille’) as his kitchen, the cinematic chef de cuisine cooks up a storm of unparalleled imagination and presents to us, the fine diners of film, a charcuterie board resplendent with rich delicacies that beg to be savoured.
As with all of Tati’s films, narrative is practically irrelevant. Roughly taking place over a 36-hour timeframe, Playtime comprises of six standalone sequences that are connected by the chance encounters between Tati’s bumbling and befuddled Monsieur Hulot & a young American tourist named Barbara (Barbara Dennek), who happens to be visiting Paris. Beginning in a ultra-modern airport that’s instilled with the stark sterility of a hospital, and concluding at a roundabout that frenziedly transforms into an automotive carousel, the focus of Tati’s whimsical wonder is the grotesque Western architecture that had recently sprung up across the Parisian landscape.
So fixated was Tati on lampooning Paris’ contemporary architectural style, it almost comes to feel like a living breathing character in itself when watching the film. In fact it’s probably the most integral one. Playtime’s two standout sequences, ‘The Offices’ & ‘The Royal Garden’ scenes, are propelled forward by the riotous visual representations of exterior high-rise building design, obstructive industrial technologies, and stylish yet impractical interiors.
The former is a notable reflection on the ludicrous floor designs found in the office workplace. Tati’s triumphant set thrusts both Mousier Hulot and the audience into a labyrinthine maze of glass rooms that lead the way to a cacophony filled with dully lit cubicles. In its centre sits a woman in a reception booth, which has the hilarious ability to swivel around 360 degrees.
It is as Hulot finds himself further lost within this intricate network of bustling business that Tati, the actor, shines through on the screen. Not only is there comedy to be seen in the set design, it’s also found in how it systematically effects Hulot’s plight, whose frustrations are made clear through a gentle symphony of huffs and puffs. The image of Hulot pursuing a business associate by attempting to catch the attention of their reflection in the glass of an adjacent building, being the perfect amalgamation of his astute satirical filmmaking and playful performing prowess.
It is in the latter however, the famous ‘Royal Garden’ sequence that takes up nearly the entire second half of the film, which most prominently highlights the director’s incredible eye for crafting chaos that’s infused with a wild, unrelenting energy. No characteristic of Tati’s work is left unexplored here. Impractical interiors, which formed the foundation for many of Mon Oncle’s finest moments, cause uniform malfunctions for the raucously unprofessional waiters who serve a melange of rowdy upper-class guests. All of who seem strangely unperturbed by the fact that the newly built restaurant they are dining in is falling down around them.
Tati literally throws every creative visual conception he has at the screen here, orchestrating an extended scene of sidesplitting frivolity that will have you gasping for air in-between your perpetual roars of laughter. Glass doors are smashed, causing doormen to simply stand and move the knob out of the way for arriving guests. Drunken louts find themselves trying to map their route home using the swirls and veins of the marble walls. And the Nation’s recognition for being the home of haute cuisine is reduced to a shadow of its former self thanks to a fish that is continually seasoned at various intervals and then reserved to different guests.
Tati doesn’t just allow the audience to see what is happening though; he is keen for them to hear it as well. Playtime, as with all of his films, is a treat for both the eyes and the ears. Audible cues are used to instigate jokes, as well as complement and complete them. Glasses smash, plates crash, people shout in anger and scream with joy, and all the while the band continue to play as if this is all decidedly normal.
As the film ends, almost as suddenly as it begins, the joy that pulses within you is indescribable. Tati was a director who didn’t want to tell stories; he simply wanted to show life. What he brings us to realise is that there really is so much comedy and absurdity to be found in something we all generally take so seriously. No other director has been able to do that quite like Jacques Tati. It’s what made him brilliant, unique, par excellence.
Playtime is running as part of an extended run of Jacques Tati’s works, which is continuing at the at BFI Southbank until Nov. 20th. Full details can be found here.