The 1967 film, Playtime, was the brainchild of the renowned French director, actor and writer, Jacques Tati. He is most well-known for his character Monsieur Hulot, who is the central figure in many of his movies. These films follow Hulot on his many adventures and misadventures in the increasingly modern France of the 1950s and ‘60s. Tati employs his unique and subtle style of comedy to poke fun at what he considers to be the most ridiculous qualities of modern Western life. Many of Tati’s earlier works focused on the stark differences that were quickly emerging between the classic provincial French lifestyle and the industrial, modern lifestyle.
However, by the time Playtime was released, nearly a decade had passed since his last film. The ‘60s, both in France and abroad, was a time of looking to the future and rejecting the past. Therefore, it is unsurprising that Tati chose to set Playtime in the high-tech, glass and steel filled world that was developing in the suburbs of Paris. For the film, Tati created a fictional, scaled down city block, lovingly known as Tativille, that he was able to manipulate to get the desired architectural effects. Unlike his previous films, Tati also decided that he wanted Playtime to be less about Hulot and more about, as he called it, “everyone”. This enabled Tati to make broader observations about society as a whole and create a larger and more lasting message about the state of humanity in the modern world. Although Playtime was not originally well-received by critics, its cleverness in both comedy and cinematography, as well as its enduring commentary on modernism, have made it a celebrated classic.
Throughout his career, Jacques Tati focused on capturing the period of transition caused by the rise and spread of the modernist movement. The movement began in the mid-1800s as artists sought to move away from the ornament and formality of the past artistic and architectural styles. They desired a means to express their feelings about the evolving modern world. Rather than having a uniform artistic style, the movement saw the birth many new styles of art, including cubism, surrealism, and abstract expressionism, as different artists experimented with their ideas about how to portray modern life.
It was also a time where technological advancements were changing the way people lived and worked. More and more people were moving into the cities to work in industry and business; therefore, there was a great need for an effective solution for efficient workplaces and large-scale urban housing. At the same time as this demographic shift, the technology of construction materials, particularly iron and steel, had advanced to a place where entire buildings could be swiftly and safely built with large interior skeleton structures. This innovation led to the design of the modern commercial building. Suddenly architects were able build apartment blocks and office buildings that could accommodate the increasing urban population.
In addition to developing a solution to deal with an increase in demand, architects in the early 1900’s also began to rethink the entire concept of built space. Many disliked the excess and futility of previous architectural styles and sought to both simplify design and improve function. As I’m sure we all know, the moniker of the modern architecture movement became “form follows function”. The 1920’s saw the rise of the revolutionary Bauhaus school and the emergence of architects like Walter Gropius and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. The Bauhaus architects, as well as others, including Le Corbusier, focused on three main design objectives: rational use of materials, lack of ornament and open structures that unified the indoor and outdoor space. Their buildings usually featured large open-planned spaces, extensive use of concrete and large glass windows and curtain walls. These design choices were viewed as the most functional and enjoyable use of space for the modern life-style. Soon, these innovative ideas were being used all over the world and in all types of spaces, from individual homes and apartment blocks, to office buildings and schools. This modern architectural style even became known as the International style because of its wide-spread implementation. Nearly every major city around the world would come to have their own supply of these open-planned steel and glass structures.
By the 1950’s, however, the focus on function and simplicity had overshadowed design and creativity. The general perception of modern architecture was that it was cold and sterile and had no connection to its location. Jacques Tati’s Playtime is set in this period of irritation and contempt of modern architecture. One of his main objectives in the film is to convey the general public’s frustration and confusion with this style of architecture.
When it came to designing the set, Tati decided to create a space that would give him the flexibility to shoot multiple buildings with a large ensemble cast constantly moving in and out of them. Tati and architect Eugene Roman, therefore, designed Tativille, a functioning mini city on the outskirts of Paris. The set consisted to two scaled down buildings made of steel and concrete, as well as numerous trompe l’oeil facades. All of the structures were movable so Tati could rearrange the sets to create what would look like an entire block of buildings. Tativille was so extensive that it even had its own power plant and working street lights. The grandness of what Tati created, however, ultimately caused many problems for the film, including it taking two entire years to shoot. The massive set and the film delays made Playtime the most expensive French film to date; however, its poor critical reception caused Tati to go bankrupt. One interesting consequence of the late release was that by the time the movie came out in 1967, architecture had moved on to the more imaginative and playful styles of mid-century modern, space age and googie.
Tati’s vision for his set was inspired by the new commercial area, La Defense, that was under development in the suburbs outside of Paris. La Defense was one of Paris’s solutions to the debate over modern city planning. It was to become the city’s major business district and its modern and functional design would allow the city’s industries to thrive. One building in particular from the burgeoning La Defense that inspired Tati was the Esso Building, a towering structure of glass and steel. Tati’s set, therefore, consisted only of this type of prototypical modern design. Nearly every building seen in the film features dominant steel skeletons and large glass curtain walls.
Tati plays on the idea of the anonymity and conformity of modern architecture by setting almost every scene within essentially the same architecture, whether it’s an airport, an office building or a hotel. In the exterior shots, these carbon-copy modern buildings continue for as far as the eye can see. Every location, despite the different functions, features large open spaces that feel sterile and uninviting. Floors are too sleek and slippery, furniture is awkward and uncomfortable. Many of the “modern” contraptions are unwieldy and impractical.
One particularly amusing set features a maze-like grid of identical cubicles. With every office looking exactly the same, Hulot quickly loses his bearings while searching for someone. When viewed from above, the audience is able to witness a great comedic scene where two colleagues go back and forth on the phone, despite being with earshot of each other. One of them even passes by the other’s office, but returns to his own cubicle to finish the conversation on the phone. This scene and other instances throughout the film show the increasing lack of human interaction that has become all too common in modern society. I find it fascinating that nearly fifty years since Playtime came out, this is an issue, as well as so many others put forth in the film, are ones that we are still grappling with today.
Like in Mon Oncle, Tati has designed sets that control how the characters can move through space. Whether its signs and arrows or walls and pillars, the architecture constantly forces the inhabitants to travel in unnatural ways to get to their destination. Modern architecture was founded on the principles of creating rational uses of space and encouraging efficiency, qualities that architects felt were lacking in earlier design styles. Tati, however, uses examples of absurd design choices to demonstrate how warped some of the ideals of the movement became at the end.
The depiction of modern architecture in the film might lead you to the conclusion that Tati disliked the style, however, he once explained that if he had, “been against modern architecture [he] would have chosen the ugliest new buildings”. He absolutely appreciated the beauty of modern architecture but was aware of how easily it could become ridiculous. He also understood the massive influence architecture has on human behavior and was concerned, rightly so, with the world that it was creating.
Tati employed a 70mm lens to allow him to capture extremely wide shots. In fitting with his desire for the movie to be about “everyone”, he tended to forgo close-ups and instead preferred to show whole environments. Tati then used small details and actions to consistently draw the audience’s attention to different aspects of the scenes. This was made possible by the long depth of field of the lens. Tati was able to keep details in the foreground and background in focus. The nightclub scene, in particular, consists of over half an hour of real-time action of characters moving about the restaurant. Many of the shots are overwhelming and chaotic, but in them are slightly hidden funny moments for the audience to find. Tati’s style of filmmaking definitely requires an amount of viewer participation. If you’re not actively watching, you will miss many of the clever bits.
Another technique that Tati used to keep these longer scenes engaging was to constantly change the point of view and perspective. The scenes are often showed from both inside and outside the space. This change often reveals something new about the scene, for instance the glass waiting room appears like a glass cage when the view pulls outward. Also the cubicles are shown from ground level as well as some above. The shot from overhead reveals the scope of layout and its uniformity. As Hulot looks out over the scene, the people below look like ants moving about.
Another interesting scene shows a glass fronted apartment, but the view soon pulls back and we can see more nearly identical apartments. The entire scene is shot from outside and, therefore, the viewer cannot hear the sound from inside. This aids the feeling that the apartment windows become like TVs that both the audience and the passersby on the street are watching. Tati also includes a cleverly angled shot that hides the wall in-between the apartments, making it look as if all of the people are in the same room.
Tati often uses the architecture in the movie for comedic effect. One of the best examples of this is the final scene of the movie where an ordinary traffic circle is subtlety transformed into a carousel.
To further his comment on the anonymity and conformity of modern urban architecture, Tati includes posters of some of the most iconic places in the world all featuring the exact same boring modern building.
Tati includes multiple gags with the glass windows and walls that fill the sets. Many of those bits play with reflections in the glass. In one scene, the audience is treated to one of the very few appearances of recognizable Paris with the reflection of the Eiffel Tower in a glass door. Tati also utilizes the potentially deceptive quality of glass. In multiple scenes, characters become confused because of reflections they see in the glass.
The majority of the movie exists in a monochromatic world of grays, whites and blues. In some scenes, though, he purposefully uses pops of bright colors to draw the audience’s attention somewhere. The Royal Garden Club is the most colorful set, which contrasts the bleak monotone world of the office buildings. This instantly creates a warmer and more joyful atmosphere. Another interesting use of color is in the drug store scene where the entire store is clothed in an unpleasant shade of green that warps the appearance of the food that’s being sold.
Tati’s use of sound in Playtime is clearly inspired by the silent film genre. Most of the film is without dialogue, instead, general background noise creates a constant city buzz. He then contrasts this with punctuations of sound, usually for comedic effect.
Despite the success of his earlier works, for instance Mon Oncle which won the 1959 Oscar for Best Foreign Language film, Playtime perplexed audiences and critics alike. Tati’s experimental and innovative filmmaking was not the upbeat Monsieur Hulot adventure that viewers were hoping for. Already in debt from the mammoth that was Tativille, Tati fell further into bankruptcy after Playtime. Although Tati directed two more movies before his death, Trafic and Parade, he no longer had the resources to produce as ambitious pieces. Tati even ended up directing some advertisements. While Tati was obviously disappointed with the end of his creative career, he would be thrilled to know that Playtime is now hailed as one of the best films of all times. It even has a perfect 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
Tati has inspired some of the most famous directors and actors in Hollywood. Steven Spielberg took note of Tati’s seemingly unending scenes for his 2004 film The Terminal. Rowan Atkinson was so inspired by Tati’s sense of humor and style of physical comedy that he modeled much of his famous character Mr. Bean after Monsieur Hulot. Atkinson even created Mr. Bean’s Holiday, a direct ode to Les Vacances de M. Hulot. Wes Anderson echoed Tati’s unique use of cinematography in the 2014 hit, The Grand Budapest Hotel. Wes Anderson also strangely directed a commercial for a Japanese cell phone company that starred Brad Pitt as a Hulot-esque character.
Some of Tati’s unfinished work has even found a new life. French director, Sylvain Chomet created an animated movie from Tati’s never-produced screenplay, The Illusionist.
Tati’s work remains so beloved, not only because of his inventive approach and comedic genius, but because of his enduring commentary on modern society. Regardless of the fifty-years since the movie, his hilarious commentary still rings true today.