Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Classic Review - Play Time (1967)

Play Time

(U), 120 mins, 1967, France

Dir: Jacques Tati
Scr: Jacques Tati & Jacques Lagrange

Starring: Jacques Tati

Not really a film of plot, more of a series of unfortunate events. Jacques Tati's world-famous creation Mr. Hulot continues his 'whacky' adventures through modern life. Split into set-pieces involving a trade exhibition, an office building, a restaurant and an apartment block the film ultimately seeks to satirize growing trends and behaviour in 1960s France.
By this point in his career director/writer/star Jacques Tati had made a name for himself directing three successful comedies - Jour De Fete (1949), Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot (1953) and Mon Oncle (1958). It was the last two films that had already introduced the world to the endearingly mumbling, bumbling Mr. Hulot. In some ways Mon Oncle acts as a testing ground for some of Tati's commentary on modernity. In it Mr. Hulot lives in a idyllic rural village whilst his sister in a cold and sterile new building. Play Time broadens it's scope. This time the chaos spreads from the kitchen to the city. That's where Play Time really stands out.

If you're unfamiliar with the Mr. Hulot character, he is an slightly clumsy but well meaning gent who in the great tradition of silent movie clowns seems to find himself in increasingly slapstick situations. Usually total destruction follows his path but he is ever so charming.

The little story that Play Time follows involves a group of American tourists on a trip to Paris. Most of the tourists buzz from one venue to the next without stopping to take anything in. Just one out of the group, Barbara stops to ponder whether or not the metropolis of glass and concrete that surrounds her is the Paris she wanted to see. On the other side of the story there is Hulot who is just trying to go about his day-to-day business but keeps getting caught up in the trappings of bureaucracy and new technology.

Having now watched four of Tati's six films I've been struck by how pleasant the films are. The sought of fare you put on when you're feeling unwell and in need of something lovely to hug you from the TV. They're not very funny though. Not in a laugh at loud way. The humour is very gentle, you may raise a smile now and then at a visual gag but the jokes aren't entirely sophisticated. This is true of Play Time, the most visually striking of Tati's films. Such attention to detail has gone into the photography and mise-en-scene (wow I actually got the phrase in to a write up) that the film overall seems to lack the soul of Tati's three previous films. At times it feels almost Kubrickian in it's steely cold perfection.

Some gags click both as slapstick and commentary. Barbara stands on a street corner trying to take a photo of a fruit seller, for that bit of local colour, unfortunately other tourists keep getting into shot, until one of them asks her to get in their picture. Another moment sees Hulot get on a bus and mistake a man's light stand for a handrail. Despite being the most frequent face on camera Hulot is not a central character. There isn't really one. Rather we watch hoards of people in different settings - the trade show, the restaurant, the office - go about their jobs. It's an interesting approach. One that should lend itself to a wealth of visual gags and word play. Again though much of the interaction is played with such a light touch that most of the jokes seem a bit too innocent to be funny in a "oh look he just ripped his trousers" sort of way.

The main reason to watch Play Time and the main reason I'm writing about it is because it is an exceeding beautiful film to watch. If you're even remotely interesting in photography and set design this is the motion picture for you. Tati actually constructed his own mini-City (affectionately referred to on-set as 'Tativille'). It came complete with sky-scrapers, road systems and building faces to make an authentic skyline. As a film construct it's as impressive as the streets made for Heaven's Gate. It's also how the city is filled that impresses. Tati is a master of scene-setting. The streets thrive with activity. The traffic in the roads dance like kids at a school disco. There's a quality to it all that goes beyond mere background action everything serves it's own small purpose.

Tati shoots his city with confidence and clarity. The inside of the buildings are sparse, painted in battleship grey making the blue sky the only major colour on film. One particular shot shows an office block lights turn on one floor at a time filling the black screen with rows of white light - it's quite beautiful. Another PT Anderson like moment sees Hulot being taken into an apartment block. We watch from outside in the street as Hulot talks to his friend and tell a story purely through visuals. The camera meanwhile pans to other windows, we see other stories being played out in different apartments. The sequences lasts nearly ten minutes. Again nothing particularly funny happens but we know what's happening. It is a master class in filming multiple actions at once.

Whilst not Tati's funniest, or warmest film it is certainly his most cinematically stunning. It's not difficult to see why Entertainment Weekly named him one of the Top 50 Directors of All Time on the basis of 6 films. Visually Play Time is his masterpiece.

Play Time - **** Stars


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