Revisiting Playtime’s Style of Comic Democracy

Playtime (Jacques Tati, 1967) is the third of four films based on the character of Monsieur Hulot (Jacques Tati), which follows a self-effacing everyman as he visits a modernized Paris over the course of a day and a night. From the moment Hulot steps off a bus into the bustling sidewalk of an entirely prefabricated Paris set – complete with grey suited businessmen, and a variety of workers, tourists and cars – he manages to disrupt the illusionistic city of glass and grids, with his unwitting way of encountering the city’s inhabitants; often leaving those he meets in a better mood than he inadvertently finds them. It is these “small serendipities,” according to Ebert,1 which generate a comedy of everyday life, and importantly, a style of comedy which has been characterized as democratic. Jonathan Rosenbaum observes that Tati’s promotion of democracy– which he links to André Bazin’s realist theory of cinema – is the result of an intricate mise-en-scène design characterised by multiple focal points that unfold naturally through the use of long shots and deep focus space.2 As a result, the spectator is free to choose where to direct their attention, (rather than the director making apparent choices for them through more conspicuous camera and editing techniques such as: close-ups and zooms). In fact, Tati’s elaborate mise-en-scène required a set that could accommodate all the events, characters and mishaps that he could orchestrate in the filmic space. “Tativille,” Tati’s elaborate set of a Paris yet to be, was initially budgeted at 2.5 million Euros, but eventually rang in over budget at 15.4 million Euros (in today’s figures), the cost of which, could not be recouped from the films’ limited release, resulting in a devastating financial failure and bankruptcy for Tati.3

Playtime began production in 1964 and was completed in 1967, and can be viewed as a product of – and response to – the politics of its historical moment. In this regard, Tati’s reaction against urbanisation and the outpacing of everyday life in France, and the seeming loss of individuality and freedom, manifests through an encounter with a complex play of characters and movements within the mise-en-scène. As evidence, in a 1958 interview with André Bazin for Cahiers du Cinéma, Tati lamented that in France, change was occurring too fast for ordinary people to keep up. The new world placed an emphasis upon the consumption of material goods and luxury, at the expense of artistry and individual expression, and that rapid urbanisation produced uniformity with little thought for lived experience to the point that one could not tell an airport from a pharmacy or a grocery store anymore. As Tati said, “What I condemn in the ‘new’ life is precisely the disappearance of any respect for the individual.”4 Tati’s complaints in 1958 could be said to reflect the growing anti-authoritarian concerns of Parisian youths and workers, which would explode in the Paris revolts and strikes of May 1968, several months after Playtime’s Paris release.

Playtime

The sense of alienation which Tati voiced to Bazin is fully developed in Playtime, and actualised in the first part of the film and the Paris airport location, which is easily mistaken for a hospital waiting room or a train station. Here, the mise-en-scène includes a set of nondescript features such as the shiny sterile grey green floors that line prefabricated structures, a conspicuously placed public toilet with flat pack doors and dividers, and rows of waiting room style seats, which disappear into offscreen space. The irony of this nondescript world is that the meaning of space constantly shifts in signification in relation to the characters who pass in and out of frame. In yet another sequence later that day, Hulot meets an old war acquaintance in the street, and visits his home located within a block of apartments which could stand in for rows of shop windows, featuring mannequin-like figures enjoying the latest designs of minimalist furniture and gadgetry – open for passers-by to peer in at and consume.

Yet Playtime not only presents us with evidence of the alienating effects of the post-war modern world, but also an antidote, through a subtle play of comic and democratic performance. In this regard, Tati’s film career evolved from his early work as a mime and performance artist. By extension, in approaching Playtime, Tati’s comedic method involved meticulously rehearsing and memorising the movements of the actors and film sequences the night before every shoot, in order to direct his actors on how to perform in each scene. Nothing was left to improvisation.5 Tati’s ability to choreograph meaning through movement becomes evident in several scenes, including the trade show sequence. Upon failing to connect with Monsieur Giffard (Georges Montant), Hulot wanders into a nondescript building in search of an illusory vision of Giffard that he catches in the glass of the building. It’s at this point that an interesting play of constraints and choices are put into play, as Hulot is both drawn in and resists the lure of a modern gadgetry trade show. In mistaking a salesman for Giffard, Hulot tries to make an exit, and his body shifts one way as he takes a few steps in the other direction, only to be reeled back in by another salesman, to view a display of the film’s recurring motif of modern black chairs. As this transaction draws to a natural conclusion, the polite Hulot moves towards the exit, but he is subsequently caught in a fast moving current of salesmen, who subsume him and whisk him into a waiting elevator. We next see the men spill out of the elevator onto another floor, at which point Hulot sidesteps the pressures to move with the crowd in part out of exclusion, but in favour of wandering towards an open balcony, which looks out at a view of the film’s only real shot of Paris, featuring the Eiffel Tower. Hulot exhibits a kind of will to move in his own direction in the face of the many pressures the modern world presents around every corner. It is perhaps not by chance that Hulot’s movements are able to convey a sense of individuality, freedom and difference – qualities which in effect assert and give rise to democracy.

 

Endnotes

  1. Roger Ebert, “Great Movies” review of Mon Oncle (1958), by Jacques Tati, Roger Ebert, June 8, 2003, http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/great-movie-mon-oncle-1958
  2. Jonathan Rosenbaum, “Tati’s Democracy: An Interview and Introduction,” Film Comment 9, 3 (1973): 36 – 41.
  3. Stéphane Goudet. “Au-Delá de “Playtime.” Disc 2. Playtime, DVD. Directed by Jacques Tati. 1967. New York: Criterion Collection, 2006.
  4. André Bazin, “An Interview with Jacques Tati by André Bazin, with the Participation of Francois Truffaut,” Translated by Bert Cardullo. Quarterly Review of Film & Video, 19 (2002): 294 – 296.
  5. Goudet, op. cit.

About The Author

Sandra E. Lim currently lectures on Politics and Film at Ryerson University in Toronto, Canada. She holds a PhD in Art and Design for the Moving Image, from the University of Brighton in the UK. Her writing on films and art can be found in the journals Screenworks and Reconstruction. Additionally, her moving image work is distributed by the Canadian Filmmakers Distribution Centre (CFMDC) Toronto.