In the middle of France’s “Trente Glorieuses” (“Glorious Thirty”, the Marshall Plan-funded period 1945-75) boom years, a sharp-witted filmmaker challenged the status quo with what would become one of the biggest cinema flops of all time. “Playtime”, a three hour long, nearly-wordless comedy, would take three years to film and bankrupt the companies that funded it. But 50 years later, the film routinely ranks as one of the greatest movies of all time. How has one of the most significant commercial failures in the history of art emerged with a positive legacy? Simply put: by introducing uncomfortable ideas to an era that desperately needed them.
At its heart, Playtime is a story of conflict. Director Jacques Tati returns to the screen to play the character of “Monsieur Hulot,” an affable-but-antiquated Frenchman who audiences first met through the big-screen comedies Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot and Mon Oncle. In both films, Tati juxtaposed the humanistic tendencies of Monsieur Hulot with the modernist idiosyncrasies of “Trente Glorieuses” society.
The conflict on screen is one of hubris versus wisdom: in Tati’s films, the self-importance of postwar life is made farce simply by comparing it to reasonable human behavior. Film critics applauded Tati’s filmmaking prowess and skillful observations of society. Audiences laughed along as Hulot stumbled through vacation clubs and molded plastic kitchens. After all, Vacances and Mon Oncle lampooned specific sectors of life. There was a safety to the scope of the parody: Tati’s films always provided a disconnect between the environments on screen and the 24-hour life audiences lived. Until Playtime, that is.
Playtime is Jacques Tati’s most ambitious film. To realize his vision of a sanitized dystopian Paris in an age before CGI, Tati literally built it. Over five months, an army of more than 100 construction workers built a massive city set comprising over 15,000 square feet in the center of the Ile de France. Tati dictated every inch of the set’s construction, visiting factories, offices, and housing complexes all over Europe to inform his precise designs. The estimated cost: a staggering 17 million euros (over $30 million USD today, not including the $3+ million USD for mid-filming set repairs).
Tati’s devotion to uncompromised writing borders on the insane, all to accomplish what he saw as the perfect portrayal of a compromised modernity. Just watching the film, audiences sense that Tati spared no expense realizing his vision. Interiors are geometric. Exteriors are fluid and spotless. Tightly-choreographed scenes include layers of background visual gags that reportedly took dozens of takes to satisfy the very man who acted in them. Intricate steel and glass skyscrapers were constructed to pull off a single visual gag involving characters’ reflections. The end result is a sandbox for Tati’s reflections on the inflated modernity he saw engulfing the better natures of the French people. To Tati, the boom years – and the ridiculous lifestyle they created – couldn’t last. But his monument to them, a mirror to society every bit as reflective as the buildings he painstakingly constructed, rings eternal. Enjoy some stills from the movie below, then rent the HD remastered version (released 2014) on Amazon at the link here. As the world again appears engulfed in technocratic madness, Playtime is worth your time.