by Mel Valentin
In French cinema, filmmaker Jacques Tati ("Trafic," "Mon Oncle," "Mr. Hulotís Holiday") holds a unique place. An independent, meticulous filmmaker, Tati is best known for Monsieur Hulot, a laconic, slightly befuddled Frenchman who stumbles and bumbles his way across modern France. A character (and man) out of time, Hulot harks back to silent film: heís a man of few, if any words who always means well, but his presence often results in minor and, on occasion, major disasters for everyone around him. Tati used M. Hulot as a vehicle for social commentary or, as in the second-to-last film to feature M. Hulot, "Play Time," to humorously satirize modernity as it expressed itself in architecture, city design, and urban living in mid-1960s France. Made with an exacting approach to visual and aural composition, "Play Time" is the kind of film that repays multiple viewings, each one more entertaining than the last.Tati spent almost a decade working on the follow-up to Mon Oncle. Production lasted three years, from October 1964 to October 1967, building a massive, expensive set dubbed ďTativille.Ē Tati co-wrote the screenplay with Jacques Lagrange (Art Buchwald provided additional English dialogue). In the first of six, interrelated sequences, Tati introduces his deep-focus, widescreen visual style and a group of American tourists at the Orly Airport, focusing primarily on a young American woman, Barbara (Barbara Dennek). Tatiís conception of the Orly Airport is a marvel of modern design. Right angles and a gray color dominate and, sometimes, dwarf the characters as they cross the airport and into a waiting bus where theyíll be ferried to their equally modern hotel. Hulot doesnít make an appearance right away. In a tip-off to audience expectations, a woman calls out to a tall lanky, trenchcoat- and hat-wearing man who isnít, in fact, Hulot.
"A masterwork by a master filmmaker (and a modern satire too)."
When Hulot finally appears onscreen, heís stepping off a crowded bus in front of a glass-and-steel building. Heís there for an important meeting (we never learn the nature of the meeting). Perplexed by the floor-to-ceiling glass windows and doors, Hulot fumbles his way around, first in the lobby, then in a walled-off waiting room. When heís finally greeted by a representative of the company, heís asked to wait. Eventually impatient, Hulot attempts to follow the representative. He quickly becomes lost in a brightly lit maze of identical cubes. Itís a perfect example of the dehumanizing effects of corporate culture, but Tatiís criticism extends as well to the uniform glass-and-steel buildings that have replaced the Paris landscape. Hulot slips into a trade show across the street where businessmen and upper-middle class women express awe at the sleek furniture and modern appliances, including a soundproof door and a battery-powered broom with headlights, each shinier and less helpful than the last.
Hulotís roundabout journey continues as night falls on Paris. He runs into an old army friend who, ecstatic at meeting an old friend, drags Hulot back to his new, ground floor. Outfitted with floor-to-ceiling, uncurtained windows, the apartment resembles the glass-and-steel office buildings encountered earlier in the day. Tati films the ensuing scene from across the street. We donít hear the conversation between the two men or the manís family, only random street sounds, but like everything else Hulot (and, by extension, the audience) has encountered so far, modernism is inextricably tied to capitalism and consumerism. Order and symmetry dominate the manís apartment, but so does coldness and sterility. Unimpressed, but unfailingly polite, Hulot eventually makes his escape.
The second-to-last sequence follows the opening night of a new nightclub, the Royal Garden. Even as the first customers arrive, the nightclub remains unfinished. Perhaps out of decorum, the customers ignore the workmen or the harried wait staff, but where order reigned supreme everywhere else in Tativille, the unfinished nightclub teeters on the edge of chaos. All it takes is one gentle push from the ever-present Hulot to send Play Time over the edge. Even then, however, Tati subverts audience expectations. Where farce seems the most likely outcome, Tati pulls back, instead showing the inhabitants of Tativille at their most human and, thus, their most sympathetic. The last, brief sequence follows Hulot and the nightclubís patrons as dawn arrives and Barbara joins her friends and acquaintances back to the Orly Airport, closing the narrative and thematic circle.
Tati, shooting in long takes, deep-focus, and in widescreen layers each image, each composition with sight gags and aural jokes. Play Time has little actual dialogue. Hulot speaks seldom and when he does, itís often in the background where we canít hear him clearly. Tati pushed most of the dialogue into the background or had the dialogue between characters overlap, often at different levels or planes (e.g., foreground, middle-ground, background). In approach, if not always in effect, Play Time resembles a film made during the silent era, but Tatiís influences also encompass, for example, Jean Renoirís Rules of the Game, with its emphasis on simultaneous multi-character action. Characters, major and minor, cross each otherís paths, oblivious to anything that doesnít directly concern them. Whatever Tati might have intended for them, each character sees themselves as the major character in their own drama (or comedy).
Unfortunately, Play Time failed at the box office. Critics have ascribed Play Timeís failure to the rapidly shifting cultural and social milieu between conception and release, Tatiís insistence on strict rules for exhibition, and Hulotís limited screen time, relative to the expense incurred in building and maintaining Tativille, eventually led to Tatiís bankruptcy. Not surprisingly, Play Time exists in several different cuts of varying length, including a 126-minute restored cut and a 155-minute directorís cut. For the American release, Play Time was heavily edited down into a 103-minute cut. The shorter cut didnít help Play Timeís box office prospects in the United States.Tati would dust off Hulotís trench coat and hate for Hulotís last appearance four years later for "Trafic." Ultimately, Tati made the film he wanted to make, unencumbered by budgetary restraints or interfering producers and for that, at least, we can be grateful, especially now that "Play Time" will be available on Blu-Ray.
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originally posted: 12/13/09 19:40:32