Introduction to Playtime (Tati, 1967) – Dukes cinema, Lancaster 19/9/13

Bruce Bennett, Lancaster University UK

(This was the introductory public talk I gave for a rare screening of Tati’s film at the Dukes cinema in Lancaster)Image

In a famous essay[i] from 1954 the film critic (and later director) Francois Truffaut complained that French cinema was dominated by quality cinema that comprised ‘faithful’ literary adaptations and historical dramas made by film directors who were unimaginative hacks who made no creative transformations to the scripts they were filming – they simply added pictures. By contrast, Truffaut celebrated the existence of another group of film-makers that he termed ‘men of the cinema’ or ‘auteurs’ who understood cinema as an essentially audio-visual rather than literary or theatrical medium and Jacques Tati, who directed this film, was one of the directors he used as an example of the film-maker as artist. At that point Tati, who was heavily influenced by silent film comedy, had only directed two films, but he was already clearly an innovative and individual film-maker with a sense of the rich comic and narrative possibilities of film sound and the film image.

Playtime, released in 1967, was the fourth of Tati’s six feature films and the third featuring M. Hulot, the Mr Bean-like character for whom Tati is best known. Having won an Oscar for his previous film, Mon Oncle, in 1958, by the time he came to make Playtime Tati was both critically highly regarded and commercially secure, and hoped that this film would be his masterpiece. He wrote to a friend as he was preparing it that, ‘Playtime is the big leap, the big screen. I’m putting myself on the line. Either it comes off or it, or it doesn’t. There’s no safety net’.

Unfortunately, the film is probably best known as a commercial disaster for several reasons including an extremely protracted production process. Tati scouted for locations in factories, airports and cities throughout Europe but, unable to find a location he would be able to close off and shoot on for weeks or months, he decided the only solution was to build the massive city sets in a studio. Since there were no studios big enough near Paris, they decided to build a new permanent studio complex on the outskirts of the city, which could be used for other productions once Playtime was complete. This was a financially sensible move except that, as they later discovered, the land they bought was ear-marked for a link-road connecting the ring-road around Paris with a nearby motorway, and so it was compulsorily purchased after the film was completed.

Construction of the vast set, ironically dubbed ‘Tativille’ by journalists, began in autumn 1964. They built two huge soundstages to shoot the interior scenes, the largest in the country at that time and also laid out a road system so that the moveable tower-blocks, which were built as flats and empty frameworks, could be rolled around the location on railway tracks to create different street layouts.  A few months into the construction of the set, it was destroyed by a storm – whereupon Tati discovered the film’s financiers had failed to insure the production against acts of God, costing them weeks of time and over a million Francs.

Shooting continued until October 1966, during which time they had filmed on 365 days – perhaps the only film-maker who comes close to this excessive schedule is Charlie Chaplin who shot for 190 days while making City Lights. After the film wrapped, Tati then spent another 9 months editing the film and continued to edit it after the premiere in December 1967 in response to audiences’ reactions at early screenings.

The slow pace of production was partly due to Tati’s perfectionism – ‘I like team-work’, he quipped, ’as long as I’m in charge of the team.’ – and partly due to financial problems: there were several periods when they shut production down due to lack of money. By the end of the film Tati and a number of family members had sold property and mortgaged their houses to bankroll the film whose cost is estimated to have been about 17m Francs (and whose initial budget was 2.4m), but Tati was bankrupted by the cost of the shoot and so much of this probably went unpaid.

In some respects, Playtime is a simple story. It takes place across roughly 24 hours in Paris during which a group of American tourists and M. Hulot, who is played by Tati, wander around the city, bumping into one another repeatedly. There are lots of characters in Playtime, but Tati is generally uninterested in complex characterization in this film – even the protagonist, M. Hulot is a cartoonish caricature rather than a fully developed character – and most of the characters represent types, rather than individuals.

He is interested in miscommunication and polite misunderstanding. Rather than being driven by aggression, determination and ambition, and a clear sense of goals, characters in his films frequently pinball through life, propelled by accidents, chance encounters and often becoming lost in the process. As a result the narrative structure of the films is at once quite complex and vague – chance and repetition are substituted for the progressive linear narrative development of classical Hollywood cinema.

This is quite deliberate. Tati said later in a 1973 interview that although it wasn’t a commercial success, Playtime was the fullest realization of his intentions as a film-maker. Although he continued to make films he said that:

Playtime will always be my last picture because of the dimension on the décor, regarding the people. There’s no star, no one person is important, everybody is; you are as important as I can be. It’s a democracy of gags and comics’.

Typically a film narrative is organized around one or two individual characters, who are given more time on screen and are treated differently in terms of sound and image from other characters. They’re shown in close-up, their dialogue is clearly reproduced over background noise, they’re presented as psychologically rich individuals. The intention with Playtime, by contrast, is that no character is more important than any other, but also, that the décor – the space in which the action takes place – is just as important as the actors. This is a radically unusual way of composing a film.

In practice it means that there are very few close-ups. Instead we have lots of long shots, and lots of shots that are on screen for a long time too, giving us time to study the image. This allows Tati to fill the frame with information. Whereas a film will usually make it very clear to the viewer where her attention is meant to be directed, leaving some areas of the image out of focus or less brightly lit, Playtime is full of shots that invite us to scan the frame searching out interesting and significant details – it doesn’t tell us where to look

It is a film that demands sustained scrutiny, like a painting, and, as a result, the American critic Noel Burch said in a 1969 review of Playtime, ‘Tati’s film is the first in the history of cinema that must be seen not only several different times, but from several different distances. It is probably the first really “open” film’. By which he means that the film is open to a variety of interpretations or ways of seeing.

It was important for Tati too that Playtime was shot on 70mm film, which is very detailed and allows the film to be blown up and projected onto a large screen with no loss of resolution. It is a film format that was usually reserved for spectacular productions like Lawrence of Arabia or 2001 (which was released a few months later), but Tati was interested in using the potential of this spectacular format very differently. Thus, he said:

‘What I like in wide-screen films are not cavalcades, gunfights, crowd scenes and so on, what I find extraordinary is that the device allows the viewer to have a fuller appreciation of a mere pin dropping in a large empty room.’ (Bellos 2011: 259)

As well as paying a great deal of attention to the composition of the image, sound is also very important to Tati. The film was shot silently and the soundtrack composed afterwards and the principle behind the sound design seems to be equally democratic – there is a democracy of sounds in this film. Normally in a film the dialogue is always privileged on the soundtrack but in Playtime, the sound effects are just as prominent on the soundtrack as speech and there is also very little scaling so that sounds coming from the background are often as loud on the soundtrack as sounds coming from action in the foreground. There is quite a lot of dialogue but it is often mumbled and hard to discern and Tati is far more interested in the sounds that we don’t normally pay attention to – the clicking of stiletto heels on lino floors, the hum of air-conditioning systems and crackle of neon lights, the squeak of vinyl and puff of air as someone sits on a chair in a waiting room. This is a fascinating film to listen to as well as to watch.

One of the other pleasures of watching Playtime, as with all Tati’s films is the pleasure of seeing bodies dancing through space. Choreographed, repetitive movement is very important in his films and the result here is almost an urban ballet. It is a film about the mundane but delicate dances we all perform as we move through modern spaces, negotiating turnstiles, and revolving doors, escalators, lifts, pedestrian crossings and office buildings.

Finally this film explores a theme that is central to most of his films, which is that of modernity – Mon Oncle, Playtime and his next film, Trafic, are all films about a modern high-tech world in which our lives are reorganized by technology and transport systems. Cars, in particular, are one of the most visible motifs of this, and the films are full of grid-locked roads and vast car-parks. Although his first two films offer a nostalgic, seductive view of traditional, rural France, it is a France that is under threat from modernization and the subsequent films are about the ways in which France becomes cosmopolitan, modernized, and Americanized.

However, the films are very ambivalent in their treatment of this theme. On the one hand they make fun of the way in which fashionable, self-important people surround themselves with unreliable high-tech, consumer goods, but on the other hand they offer us an optimistic view of a utopian, futuristic world. Although Charlie Chaplin was one of Tati’s heroes – and M. Hulot might well be named after the name the French gave to Chaplin, Charlot – there is little trace in Tati’s films of the satirical anger at the modern world that we find in Chaplin’s work.

As Alex Bellos, Tati’s biographer puts it, ‘Tati’s use of gadgetry and innovation is remarkable for its ambiguity: especially in Playtime […] he exploits the new almost equally for its comic potential and for its aesthetic pleasure.’ (253) So, for example, Playtime is a celebration of the minimalist visual beauty of plate-glass, stainless steel, black leatherette, grey lino and formica, tarmac, curtain-walled office blocks, autoroutes, roundabouts, lamp-posts and street-lights. Thus, concludes, Bellos, ‘All Tati’s work, […] is angled towards reconciliation, not revolt. Tati was not out to change the world, but to help us look at it with less horror.’ (311)

Given that Playtime was released in France at the beginning of a period of radical social upheaval, not long before the general strike and riots in Paris, this may help to explain its lukewarm reception since it could have been perceived as being out of step with the spirit of the times. Although it was well received by film critics, it failed to turn a profit although this wouldn’t have been helped by Tati’s insistence that the film could only be shown in cinemas with 70mm projectors and stereo sound systems, refusing to allow the film to be distributed on a standard 35mm print (and, of course, until the popularization of large-screen TVs, the film was almost impossible to watch on television, limiting its subsequent accessibility – it is a film that is better known by reputation than exposure).

But it could also likely that audiences found the film confusing and frustrating to watch because it required them to adjust their expectations of what a film is, which is perhaps not what people look for on a night out. A French critic reviewing the film on its release declared it to be ‘An Absolute masterpiece of confounding and vertiginous beauty […] Never, perhaps has a film placed so much confidence in the intelligence and activity of the spectator: the challenge was too great to find a commensurate response’.

So this is the challenge this film continues to pose to its audience: are you sufficiently intelligent and imaginative to enjoy the confounding, vertiginous beauty of this film?

Alex Bellos (2011) Jacques Tati: His Life and Art (London: Harvill Press)

Michel Chion (2002) The Films of Jacques Tati (Toronto: Guernica)

‘Tati’s democracy’ – transcript of a 1973 interview with Tati by Jonathan Rosebaum