Modernism is a very wide term that describes the styles that developed throughout the 20th century across the world. The search for a spirit of the age (every age develops a new expression of collective humanity), artists and architects were committed to the revelation of this spirit unique to their time, morally superior to all others and tending towards a more advanced development. This generated a revolutionary change in the field of architecture and other art forms, it started in the Bauhaus art school in Germany and developed with the CIAM (international congress of modern architecture).

Modern architecture was characterised by the simplification of forms, the absence of ornaments and the conscious resignation to classical composition, it also arose from the rational application of technology to building and construction, using new materials like steel and concrete, and their associated technologies.

The architect-planner-designer exercised great influence from 1940-1980, their position was sustained by a permissive framework of planning laws and aesthetic control; they had almost dictatorial powers and immunity from interference by owners, residents and the general public.

In the second half of the 20th century, new developments of the modern movement were produced in its many possibilities, as well as critical alternatives, in the last decade, there even was a radical questioning to the concept itself, through its deconstruction, which were later interpreted as post modernism and deconstructivism.

Modern architects in France

One of the first representatives was Tony Garnier (son of Charles Garnier, architect of the Paris opera), he drew on classical (use of axes and gridiron patterns for street layout) as well as modern (faith in technology and new materials) principles of design. He designed la cite industrielle, a settlement intended for 35 thousand people, his scheme supplied a convincing imagery for the functions of a modern town, its designs suggested that machine-age values of clear geometric repetition were the appropriate ones for modern society.

A colleague of Garnier in the ecole de beux-arts, Auguste Perret, continued the thinking of the future shape of the modern city; he became a notable innovator with reinforced concrete forms and coined the term la ville tour (the city of towers). From 1920 onwards, he worked on schemes that combined vertically with effective movement systems and saw Fordism (systems based on industrialized, standardized mass production) as holding the key to sociological transformation. He sought a formal discipline in the limits and creative potentials of new construction systems, leading to genuine architectural forms of lasting quality.

In that time, no other modern architect synthetized ideas from so many sources or combined designs and sociological ideas with the same facility as Charles Jeanneret (Le Corbusier). Le Corbusier worked for Perret and they both shared the ideas of what modern architecture was all about: creating designs that best reflect functional and economic considerations, the use of flat roofs and an open ground plans (made possible with the introduction
of the reinforced concrete frame). They both tried
 to apply the advances of science and technology to achieve their goals.

Le Corbusier was a tireless worker, he created countless projects, many that never were constructed, like the voisin plan for Paris, where he followed a metaphor of planning, as painful but necessary surgery designed to improve the health of the body, he wanted to destroy the street in order to save it, he made a conscious effort to sketch the lifestyle of inhabitants of the future city, he believed in the power of architecture to bring social change without having to transform the economic base of society.

Modernism in France

Tati’s movies were made in a great development period for France, called le trente glorieuses (the 30 glorious), a period from the Marshall plan (the American contribution to the reconstruction of the post-war Europe), until the oil crisis of 1973. Frances economy grew rapidly like economies of other developed countries within this frame time, high productivity combined with high average wages and consumption rose the French standard of living to be one of the world’s highest, also the population became more urbanized, with the metropolitan areas growing considerably in population, while rural areas declined. This period of development put France as the symbolic centre of Europe.

In the 1940s and 50s, research groups were created in France to merge architectural and economical requirements for reconstruction after world war 2, in ASCORAL (assemble des constructeurs pour une rénovation architecturale) and later ATBAT (atelier des bâtisseurs) architects and technicians worked in an interdisciplinary fashion at the optimisation of architectural concepts, for a simpler and faster execution, to economize on materials and labour as well as lowering project costs. This led to experimental architectural typologies and building elements, mass production and the related normalization were necessary and fundamental characteristics of post-war modernisation.

This great economic rise brought the creation of business centres in the larger cities, where companies established their headquarters, in large skyscrapers, whose architectural form reflected what this period’s motto seemed to be: efficiency. The old France of charming villages and traditional families did not disappear but gradually gave way to a new country of superhighways and skyscrapers. The changes in people’s lives due to modernisation where experienced as abrupt transformations of lifestyles, as France withdraws from a colonial empire, making an inward movement, a new middle class society starts to have newly comfortable domestic interiors, for most families, a home with all the amenities of modern living became the greatest welfare: electric kitchens, enclosure of private automobiles,.. Bringing a new ideology of happiness built around the culture of consumerism.

tati movies 1

Tati’s ambivalence to modernism mirrored debates being conducted in reaction to the immense modernisation and Americanisation of post war France.

1949- jour de fête

Focuses on new and sophisticated methods of mail transportation into a rural community, its main character, a mailman is determined to be as good as any American mail carrier, because the US postal service is known for its speed and accuracy.

1953- Le vacances de Monsieur Hulot

Shows leisure time and the automobile, Monsieur Hulot takes a holiday at a seaside resort, where his presence provokes one catastrophe after another.

In this movie, he introduces M. Hulot, tati wanted to create a universal character, common and ordinary guy, overwhelmed by the excesses of modern life and a bit clueless. interpreted by himself, Hulot is each and every one of us, central yet peripheral to his environment

1958- Mon Oncle

He questions the new aesthetic concepts in the 1950s Europe; the movie portrays traditional and modern, disorder and order, novelty and monotony, informality and formality through stereotyped characters that live in completely different worlds in one city.

tatis movies 2

1967- Playtime

Almost ten years later, Tati´s next movie follows the same line of thought tan Mon oncle, we step out of the house and into the city, where human relations are even more disperse. Hulot is not the “star” of the movie, merely the most apparent of many characters; he is the just-another-nobody with whom we all partially identify. Hulot is at once instigator and observer of comic potential in the modern city.

Playtime is a surreal, comic vision of humanity’s battle against the overwhelming depersonalization of modern life, it takes place in an ultra-modern Paris, The story alternates between Monsieur Hulot, who has an appointment with a businessperson and Barbara, a young American tourist visiting Paris with a group women. The film is structured in six sequences, linked by Monsieur Hulot and Barbara, who run into each other at various locations.

1971- Traffic

in this movie, he reflects specifically on the automobile modern culture, which was already a part of his films, in traffic M. hulot is employed as an auto company’s head of design and takes his new product to an auto show in Amsterdam.


To make playtime, Tati created a mini-metropolis on a site east of Paris and collaborated on the design with architect and set designer Eugène Roman. Tati created a world that amplified the consequences of the changes France was going through.

The ambitious director spent a small fortune, including much of his own money, on the realization of what became known as Tativille, a 15000 square meters, down-scaled pseudo-city. The buildings were mounted on rails for movement, had central heating and electric centrals that allowed with powerful spotlights, to keep a permanent artificial sun.

Leslie Camhi of the Village Voice “PLAYTIME was Tati’s grandest conception. Tativille, the cinematic metropolis outside Paris where the film was shot, took him six months to build; its caverns of glass towers, escalators, neon signs, and nightclubs ruined him financially.”

The towering buildings are laid out in a grid. Cubicles in an office floor are laid out in a grid. The cars in the parking lots are laid out in grids. Life has become compartmentalized, and the films amusement is derived as much by the casual acceptance of this world by its inhabitants as by M. Hulot’s confusion.


He described TATIVILLE as the real star of the film, displaying a Paris comprised of rectilinear glass, Steel and concrete, based on the Esso building at la defense and implicitly on lever house in New York. This created city does not have any history, colour or nature, which are still visible in Mon oncle.

However, Tati didn’t find modern architecture hideous, he stated ‘if I had been against modern architecture, I would have shown the ugliest buildings, I made it so that no architect could say anything against it, I took the finest ii could, these buildings are beautiful’ he wasn’t criticising architecture per se, only its consumerist society, modernist individuals. His shots are not at modern architecture; they are within modern architecture.

tatis inspiration

Charlie chaplin

Charlie Chaplin was one of Tati’s heroes – and M. Hulot might as 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.

Some of the characters in Mon Oncle live in a modern world that makes little sense to Hulot. His bout with the futuristic kitchen brings to memory a similar scene in Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936) in which an unsuspecting factory worker is fed clumsily by a machine.



Buster Keaton

Tati employs Keaton’s trademark techniques with sound and production design to achieve the indefinable, comic genius of his films.

“tati has understood how to achieve a character that has a comedic effect in any situation he is placed in, in that way, tati begins where we left off 40 years ago” buster keaton


inspired by tati

Mr Bean

I loved his movies, and you know, “Mr. Hulot’s Holiday” I remember seeing when I was 17 — that was a major inspiration. He opened a window to a world that I’d never looked out on before, and I thought, “God, that’s interesting,” how a comic situation can be developed as purely visual and yet it’s not under-cranked, it’s not speeded-up, it’s more deliberate; it takes its time. And I enjoyed that”.

David Lynch

Tati´s atmospheric use of sound added a completely new dimension of humour, further inspiring him to pay strict attention to his own soundscapes

2004- The Terminal

Steven Spielberg said he was playing a very slight homage to playtime in this movie, a tribute to tati for the way he allowed his scenes to go on and on and on. The character he played in Mr. Hulot’s Holiday and Mon Oncle was all about resourcefulness and using what is around him to make us laugh

2011- The Fairy

Belgian-based performer-director duo Dominique Abel and Fiona Gordon have pursued an athletic, surreal variation on Tati’s style in comedies such as The Fairy, which incidentally riffs on Playtime’s throwaway gag about a dog in a holdall.

2014- A pigeon sat on a branch reflecting on existence

Roy Anderson builds elaborate city sets in his Stockholm studio on which he stages grim black comedy scenarios involving huge casts; this film is the third part of a trilogy that merges tati-style deadpan with a beckettian take on the human condition.

2014- The Grand Budapest hotel

This movie is like the later works of Jacques Tati as he became more and more concerned with the technical aspects and art form of the gag than the feeling it is meant to create.  This comparison may be even more apt when considering Playtime when Tati moved away from the Academy ratio and worked with 65 and 70mm film stocks.



Playtime has amazing sets, the settings, lighting and costumes are the most attractive part of the film, the film uses long shots, together with a wide lens, creating a large depth of field, allowing the display of more than one thing happening at the same time, giving the audience the freedom to pay attention to whatever they want to see.

flats scene

Like the scene that displays the apartment building, he uses a wide shot to display several flats, showing that everybody is doing the same, watching tv, but they are unable to see their own lives or interact with each other, the apartments even become a television themselves, with the large windows as screens showing their life to people on the street, in this scene the camera never ventures inside nor are the actors heard on the film’s soundtrack, placing us on the street like any other pedestrian passing by, here tati is questioning the notion of entertainment in this modern world.

Playtime was post synchronized and originally released with stereophonic sound to create an illusion of multi-directional audible perspective, the overwhelming, multi layering, exaggeration and unfitting absence of sound produces a palpable gap between hearing and seeing.

A very distinct feature of this movie is that the dialogs feel like background noise, the city noises are what audibly invade the scenes, there are very diverse sounds but mostly of modern machines and architecture, by enhancing the sounds produced by the elements that surround people, these elements become a very important part of the film. The use of background noise and prolonged shots help to establish each shot as its own moving architectural photograph. A lot of the same aesthetic principles implemented into architectural photographers work is used within a lot of shots in Playtime. The use of sounds, especially the emphasis on hearing crowd noises, is another technique that allows to show these areas as lived in spaces. This addition of stimulating over senses backs the theory that each scene implements a photographer’s mentality.

Tati portrays a hyper modern Paris with carefully detailed shots using forced perspective (making nearby buildings seem further away and thus larger) and photographed facades standing in for the fronts of some structures (offering no reflections in their mirrored panels). The architecture appears to be the main antagonist of the piece, doesn’t just treat the architecture as an obstacle (something he must navigate through) but rather like a co-star (something he can play off comically throughout the film) People are shown as accessories compared to the importance of the buildings, they are just a little part in a vast network of cubicles, box shaped apartments, glass walls, elevators, pavements and walkways. People in the scenes appear to be used in very much the same way as they would be in a photograph (additions to make the buildings feel lived in).


Always playing with perception, Tati is constantly deceiving with his images, constructing sets and placing his camera in exactly the right place to execute a visual transformation of space in-between the scenes. The sets are largely constructed of planes and right-angles and grids, but often when there is a cut, the film will cut to another shot of the same scene that’s at right-angles to the original view. So we’ll see one particular bit of action, then cut, and suddenly we’re viewing the same subject roughly 90 degrees to the left, or to the right. The changed perspective brings different details to the foreground, and pushes others into the background. The effect here reinforces the angular feel of this comically futuristic world.

Tati uses a variety of cinematic procedures as well as disrupting the conventions of characterization and narrative in order to prevent the audience from absorption to the film and identification with its characters. He invites a distracted reception: among these strategies he uses peripheralization to activate the edges of the frame and empty its centre, (long shots stretch space and time across the frames empty centre).

For example in the scene where hulot is waiting with the concierge for a man to cross a long empty corridor, hearing only the resounding clatter of his footsteps. The man emerging from the perspectival vanishing point plays with the optics of disappearance, while the decentred action and unsynchronized sound militate against focused vision, making the eyes of the viewer move around the frame.

Tati commented on this: “It’s always like this in life. Someone arrive, parks his car, disappears, you forget, he reappears an hour later, etc. it was interesting to base an entire construction on this notion of time, it is evident that this demands an entirely different form of attention on the part of the spectator”.

restaurant scene

Movement and sound work together as a narrative function in the restaurant scene, creating an escalating rhythm that depicts a sense of liberation and disorder, tati highlights the shift from a manufactured, unwelcoming and isolated environment, to that of a collaborative, fun and impulsive one by contrasting the music in the restaurant with the tedious urban sounds of the office scenes, the introduction of colours and Tati’s lighting design supports the narratives progression out of the dreary monochromatic environment. He provides the viewer with multiple layers of action, guiding them to discover the variety of subjects and props within a shot. Tati creates a multi-sensory experience, depicting a chaotic environment where the character’s rebel against the rigid and impersonal values imposed on them by modern France.

The cinematography is similar throughout the film and in other tati films. We never get any close-ups, playtime was shot in 70milimeter and intended to be viewed on a gigantic screen, where all the details Tati fills his frames with are clear. These long shots distance us from the action and allows us to view it with the detached amusement we would not get if the camera was closer.


Jaques tati uses glass, the most cherished material of the modern movement to create an analogy between architecture and film, showing to be absurdly deceptive, at once frame, mirror and window, glass architecture causes chaos with materiality just as film does, but inversely : film calls out what is unreal and glass tends to dissolve what already exist. Glass, sometimes transparent and others just partially, proves that transparency is not about seeing everything, but seeing under particular conditions, in this way glass dictates how we see the world around us, in Playtime architecture acts as a frame, which allows or restricts what we can view.

Glass is intended to provide light and a measure of transparency, but the film’s longest running joke has to do with the way that modern style of architecture frustrates as much as it gratifies. Glass is an unexpected, nearly invisible barrier between people. Reflections in glass prove illusory even though they may offer bare glimpses of beauty.


“Instead of plot it has a cascade of incidents, instead of central characters it has a cast of hundreds, instead of being a comedy it is a wondrous act of observation. It occupies no genre and does not create a new one. It is a filmmaker showing us how his mind processes the world around him.” Roger Ebert

Jacques tati makes a critic to modern architecture and its geometric forms that most of the times aren’t even functional, just like in mon Oncle the built space dictates the rules of where and how to walk. The lifestyle and specially the architecture in cities is present in both movies, showing us how important architecture is, how it can establish the life style of its inhabitants, this style is the main critic in this movies, making architecture the key of everything. Tati makes a critic, not always negative to modernity and its influence on social, cultural and economic relationships of society, sometime portraying both the traditional and modern to show their differences and connections.

In Mon Oncle we see a real city that makes us reflect, playtime shows a simulated city, created to show extremes and absurdity, it doesn’t reach a dystopian characteristic because it isn’t completely undesirable, but it is an exaggeration. Through stereotyping figures and questioning modernity, both movies remain current in this century. At the end of the movie, we see a peculiar roundabout, full of diversity and colour, lets us see the Little stories of the characters within it, making us believe that as much as architecture and urbanism want order, its inhabitants character will remain, they will make the city their own, giving it colour and variety.

Architecture and the city are given the right to a comic mode; a lighter and more humorous way of experiencing space, quite different from an art gallery reverence. if architecture is everywhere around us, so is humour, although the movie is full of gags, they are mostly dispersed quietly throughout the film and rely on observation from the audience, this suggest that all architectural scenes have comic potential, if only we pay enough attention to realise it.

Angela Mantilla