When the Museum of The Moving Image reopened this January with a 70mm screening of Jacques Tati’s Playtime, I was one click away from purchasing a plane ticket to New York. The lure of watching one of my favorite movies in its original 70mm was quite difficult to ignore. In plain English, 70mm was high definition before there was digital HD. Tati’s widescreen spectacle makes good use of every inch of the format by setting up multiple gags simultaneously within the same frame. The critical consensus is that you can watch Playtime over and over again and you will still see something different in each viewing. Houstonians will now have a chance to witness this cinematic achievement at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston on April 21st. The MFAH screening is only a 35mm version since 70mm is an extremely rare occurrence in our time, but it should not dampen anyone’s enthusiasm for this one-time screening because Playtime is one of the few films that can only be fully appreciated on the big screen.
For anyone who has never seen Playtime (or any other Tati films), the beginning could be a disorienting experience because you have not seen any film quite like this. In the opening scene, a couple sits at the bottom left corner of the screen waiting inside an airport terminal. Over barely audible dialogue (with subtitles), the worried wife is talking her indifferent husband’s ear off. Meanwhile, dozens of characters walk in-and-out of the frame, going about their business— two nuns walk by with they flapping headgear, a janitor stares at the floor but never sweeps and a nurse with a baby, to name a few. Gradually, you will realize that some of these seemingly trivial characters have come onscreen again and it won’t be long before you find the humor in their quirks. That is when the fun begins.
After the commercial and critical success of his previous films, M. Hulot’s Holiday and Mon Oncle, Tati had the inspiration to push his unique brand of comedy to new heights. While dialogue has always been sparse and plot has never been his emphasis before, Tati has all but abandoned any story in Playtime, and one does not need to understand the minimal dialogue to enjoy the film. As a nearly wordless comic, Tati is undoubtedly influenced by Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton yet he was not a mere disciple of the great silent slapstick. The Frenchman’s physical comedy is often highly observational and he does not settle for a simple gag— his meticulously designed comedic sequences often take up a chunk of the film and requires a room full of actors to complete.
His comedic designs might be intricate but Tati gets his inspiration from the littlest thing. In one scene, Barbara the American tourist attempts to take a picture of a street vendor selling flowers yet she is stopped by a random pedestrian every time she tries to press the shutter. Globalization is foretold in tourism posters of Mexico and London that all feature a picture of the same generic skyscraper, only with a different caption. Tati, as he does in most of his films, also takes a swipe at our thirst for complicated and confusing hi-tech devices. At a convention his character Hulot stumbles into, there is an electric broom with headlights and an insulated door that makes no noise even when slammed. Tati reminds us how we forget that joy can be found in the simplest things in our daily lives as we painstakingly find ways to make life more convenient. Playtime is a rare satire that does not contain a drop of cynicism and remains endearing the whole way through.
The Royal Garden restaurant sequence is perhaps the most complicated in all of Playtime’s choreographed mischief. Tati set his plan in motion by first showing the wait staff scrappily put the new restaurant together before the dinner rush and then has whole establishment eventually and hilariously descend into chaos. Critic and Tati expert Jonathan Rosenbaum called the sequence, “The most formidable example of mise-en-scène in the history of cinema.” Tati masterfully uses music to guide the tempo throughout these scenes and having Barbara stand out amongst the crowd by the way of a green dress is only one of his many clever uses of color. In the film’s closing sequence, Tati turns a traffic jam into a carousel with carnival music and peppermint-colored cement trucks. Bucking from the pressure of repeating the success of previous Monsieur Hulot movies, Playtime also features Tati’s signature character in a limited role for the sake of a creative breakthrough. Tati put his heart and soul in Playtime. He built an expensive and elaborate set (aptly named “Tativille”) outside of Paris, shot over the course of three years and spent six months in the editing room— taking a grand total of nine years to complete the film. Although Playtime’s commercial disappointment led to his eventual bankruptcy, Tati’s singular masterpiece is as close to perfection as any filmmaker can dream of.
Playtime plays at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston on 4/21 at 7:00 pm.