Play Time Movie Review
Jacques Tati was such a man, and his Play Time is the fruit of ten years of concerted effort, an effort that left the popular French filmmaker bankrupt, homeless, without much by way of future projects, and without the rights to his previous films. Play Time was to be the follow-up to Tati's successful Mon Oncle, the 1958 comic vehicle featuring the filmmaker's beloved screen persona Monsieur Hulot. (M. Hulot first appeared in 1953's Monsieur Hulot's Holiday, a title that perhaps remains France's best-loved comedy.) Tati, always an adventurous director, was tired of the character, though, and longed for something larger - a movie, as he said, about "everyone." He accordingly developed an ambitious idea for a comedy that focused not on one person, but on dozens; the film was to be essentially plotless, dealing in a circuitous way with the search for a human heartbeat in the steel and glass of modern society. By 1959 he had formulated enough of an idea that contracts with his studio were signed and the quest for Play Time had begun.
Tati's movies are about people, but they're also about people reacting to specific environments, and locations became a central issue when production of Play Time got underway. The director reportedly visited modern airports and factories throughout Europe in an attempt to find a set whose sterility and efficiency properly offset his characters' far more human endeavors; he found the answer for his airport in Paris's Orly, but the skyscraper he needed remained elusive. So he built one. Now known as "Tativille," the resulting structure was erected in southeast Paris by a work force of over 100 laborers, utilizing an estimated 11,700 square feet of glass, 31,500 square feet of timber, and 486,000 square feet of concrete. Although legally uninhabitable, the site had its own power plant and roads. Obviously, the cost was enormous, and Tati's financial position was worsened when heavy winds felled a good part of Tativille, causing unexpected costs and delays. Another impediment to thrift was the meticulous nature of Tati's directorial style (hours of preparation for seconds of film - an extended nightclub set piece alone, for example, took nearly two months to capture) as well as Tati's decision to shoot the film in pricey 70mm Panavision with five-track stereophonic sound. One thing led to another, and before long Tati found his cash depleted. He then did what filmmakers often find themselves doing: He begged. As a gauge of the director's value to his homeland, consider the fact that the man who ultimately bailed him out was none other than Prime Minster Georges Pompidou, who engineered a loan with a French bank for which Tati provided collateral in the form of rights to his past films and partial rights to Play Time as well. He also mortgaged, and lost, his home.
Play Time was finally completed in 1967, and the film born of all this turmoil is one of cinema's truly unique visions - and it remains so today. A marvelous, huge comedy, Play Time follows a smattering of Frenchmen and a group of tourists through a day in a Paris that isn't quite contemporary - it's a vision of Paris as it might be in a perpetual tomorrow, where steel and glass skyscrapers plunge dizzily upwards, the hum of machinery throbs just audibly in the background, and a babel of French, English, and German is spoken on the streets. Everything here is new (technically the nightclub isn't even open yet), although if you look quickly you might glimpse the reflection of the Arc de Triomphe or Sacré Couer in the glass of a swinging door. The most rustic feature of this space-age playground is the people who populate it; Tati follows them through the four magnificent set pieces that comprise the movie - the arrival of the tourists at Orly, a trade fair where modern home conveniences are offered, the unforgettable nightclub sequence (Vincent Canby called it a "neon-lit Götterdämmerung"), and a remarkable closing sequence in which the streets of the city are transformed into an elaborate carousel. What's impossible to characterize - and what mostly makes Play Time so special - is the enormous humanity of Tati's vision. His people speak in chirps, like a flock of strange, urban pigeons, and their social rituals and befuddlement before adversity are the source of Tati's' gags. Yet he never invites us to laugh at them. Their bedrock hopefulness and the graciousness of their interaction with one another state Tati's' theme clearly: As we progress into an uncertain future, the human spirit is what we must prize above all. His is a generous vision and no one is excluded.
Ultimately heavy winds would fell Play Time as well, but this time they were the winds of social change. At the time of its release, Play Time was a radical departure from all that had come before it: It had no plot, no main character, and its frames were animated with a new kind of screen life. People needed time, perhaps, to adjust to the newness of what Tati was trying to do. They didn't get it. A few months after the film's release France was rocked by the "events of May," and in light of student rioting a film which months before had seemed revolutionary was now rendered old-fashioned in some essential way by its own immeasurable charm. Play Time failed at the boxoffice, both in its homeland and here. (It wasn't released in the USA until 1973.) It would take Tati almost another ten years to get back on his feet financially and he died shortly afterwards.
Play Time isn't a perfect film but what great films are? It's too long, sometimes too busy, and, as with all of Tati, the gags sometimes cross the line from subtle to not entirely there. But, given the scope and generosity of Tati's vision, his determination, and the enormous goodwill of his message, aren't these petty complaints?
The Criterion Collection has re-released Play Time (a 2001 Criterion edition has long since gone out of print) with expanded extras: Tati's 1967 short Cours du soir, a documentary about Tati's career, a making-of documentary, and much more. In Play Time Tati makes one request of you, the viewer, and Criterion has made it easy to comply: Enjoy.