I suppose it could be argued that I saw Playtime for the first time in ideal circumstances—as an American tourist in Paris. Yet to argue this would mean overlooking the film’s suggestion that, like it or not, we’re all tourists nowadays—and all Americans in some fashion as well.
It’s a brash hypothesis, arguably somewhat middle-class and rooted in the assumptions of the 1960s—but then again, a great deal of what’s known today as “the sixties” can be traced back to the vision and activity of middle-class Americans. I was certainly enough of a middle-class American tourist to find myself bemused as well as amused by this account of a day spent in a mainly studio-built Paris—and sufficiently intrigued by the seeming absence of focal points during several busy stretches to return to the movie a couple of times. This was during the summer of 1968. I’d arrived in Paris in June, at the tail end of the famous May events, the very day that the police took back the Odéon from the students. I caught the movie in 35mm, during what must have been its second or third run, a good half year after it had opened in 65mm—the format in which it was shot, which Jacques Tati suggested was the shape of the modern world—with a running time of 152 minutes. Under pressure from exhibitors, and to avoid an intermission, Tati had trimmed about fifteen minutes between the December premiere and mid-February, and with rare exceptions, most of the versions seen ever since have been about this length, in 35mm and monaural. Sadly, not all of the missing footage—most of it reportedly devoted to further variations of existing gags—has been recovered, but everything else was enhanced in a 2002 65mm restoration of the original sound and image. So we can finally see and hear the film as Tati conceived it.
When I flew back to New York, out of Orly, at the end of the summer, I was delighted to hear Playtime’s theme music employed as Muzak on my departing plane. Like the use of the same theme as the movie’s exit music, accompanying my departure from the theater each time, this implied a continuity between the movie and the world that I’ve been discovering and rediscovering ever since. In this respect, Playtime has an unexpected affinity with Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (a film that, incidentally, Tati adored and that also originally clocked in at about 155 minutes)—in its wide-screen project to reeducate us by disrupting some of our basic habits in organizing visual and spatial data. And its only counterpart in Tati’s own career would be his deceptively modest and boldly experimental last feature, Parade (1973), which carried the radical principle of equating spectators with performers even further, gently insisting that, as Tati liked to put it, “the comic effect belongs to everyone.”
A year after my first encounter with Playtime, I moved from Manhattan to Paris, and in retrospect I think I can say that the film played a significant role in my decision. It was less a matter of my Francophilia than a dawning discovery about how to live in cities that this masterpiece had helped me to formulate. And, not surprisingly, I found I could apply this lesson more readily to Paris, with its outdoor café chairs that function as orchestra seating and the theatrical lighting of its streets at night. By contrast, I felt that in response to Manhattan’s sensory overload I was starting to feel detached from and deadened to the world around me whenever I left my one-room apartment. Playtime proposed a particularly euphoric form of reengagement with public space, suggesting ways of looking and finding connections, comic and otherwise, between supposedly disconnected street details—not to mention connections between those details and myself.
A few years after my move, I landed an interview with Tati in his suburban office, in La Garenne-Colombes, and began our conversation by telling him how Playtime had changed my relation to cities. (Around me, in his small office, I could see a few enduring elements from the film—most notably, one of the antiseptic black chairs, which, unlike its movie equivalents, didn’t go whoosh when I sat in it.) I’m sure that my declaration, along with my subsequent friendship with Marie-France Siegler, Tati’s main assistant—who can be seen seated on the bus next to the young tourist, Barbara, in Playtime’s final sequence—must have played some role in my getting hired as his “script consultant” a couple of months later.
It was a weekday job that basically consisted of being his audience for a never-filmed film project called Confusion—ultimately lasting, if memory serves, less than a couple of weeks, until Tati became ill. He had recently been bankrupted by the heavy losses of Playtime, so it was generous of him to be paying me any salary at all. This was during the period when Playtime was first showing in the United States, in various cuts over which he had no control, and there were times during our sessions together, often in the late afternoon, when he sank into gloom. I remember one such time when he sought to cheer himself up by looking through his scrapbooks devoted to the Playtime sets. He also once imagined killing off his famous persona, Monsieur Hulot, in the opening moments of Confusion, a gesture that for him would have been liberating. The character was his meal ticket—which is why Tati reluctantly made him more prominent again in Trafic (1971), after deliberately minimizing and even downgrading him in Playtime with a profusion of ersatz Hulots—but he interfered with Tati’s democratic notion of comedy, which did away with stars. In Playtime, he liked to say, the only real star was his set—and maybe that was expensive, “but not any more than Sophia Loren.”
Playtime is a movie that unfolds entirely in a public space defined by that set. Even the strange sequence showing us adjacent living rooms—which wasn’t part of any of the versions I saw until Tati reedited a final version that satisfied him, shortly before his death, in 1982—is shot exclusively from the street; and the only time we see Barbara in her hotel room is when a maid delivers her evening dress. So there’s something inappropriate and contrary to Tati’s design for the film about its being viewed in private spaces, especially on any screen smaller than oneself. Playtime assumes a precise contiguity and continuity with the public space of a theater, where we share its experience with others—just as the customers and employees of the Royal Garden eventually manage to carve out a common social investment in an establishment that’s gradually disintegrating around them. Even if we sometimes wind up laughing at different gags, we’re all laughing to some degree at ourselves, and the sense of mutual recognition is crucial.
Mobile phones have sadly made the sense of public urban space as it exists in Playtime almost archaic, a kind of lost paradise. The utopian vision of shared space that informs the latter scenes—beginning in the new Royal Garden restaurant at night and continuing the next morning in a drugstore and on the streets of Paris—is made unthinkable by mobile phones, whose use can be said to constitute both a depletion and a form of denial of public space, especially because the people using them tend to ignore the other people in immediate physical proximity to them. Nevertheless, given his capacity to keep abreast of social changes, I have little doubt that Tati, if he were alive today, could and probably would construct wonderful gags involving the use of these phones. And if he were making Playtime now, I suspect he’d most likely be inventing gags for the first part that involved mobile phones, and then would have to find ways of destroying or disempowering them to make way for the second part. (It’s hardly accidental that his most brilliantly and elaborately developed gag involves the shattering of glass, another social barrier.)
The Royal Garden sequence, making up roughly half of the film, may be the most formidable example of mise-en-scène in the history of cinema. It is certainly the most Brueghel-like in its expansion of the principle—found in such populated landscape paintings as Landscape with the Fall of Icarus and The Procession to Cavalry—that life and history unfold in a plethora of small, almost indiscernible details.
The crucial catalyst for our appreciation of this sequence is the music, played by two successive bands and then sung by an old-fashioned chanteuse, who’s eventually joined by the customers—an element that helps us to cope creatively with Tati’s overload of invention by furnishing a rhythmic base to work from. Thanks to this music, each set of visual options has a rhythmic pattern for one’s gaze to follow while scanning the screen’s busy surface of swarming detail, through which we can join Tati in charting our own choreographies, improvising our own organizations of emphasis and direction in relation to the director’s massive “head arrangement.” What other movie converts work into play so pleasurably by turning the very acts of seeing and hearing into a form of dancing?
Jonathan Rosenbaum was film critic for the Chicago Reader from 1987 through 2007. His books include Discovering Orson Welles, Essential Cinema, Movie Mutations (coedited with Adrian Martin), Abbas Kiarostami (with Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa), Movie Wars, Dead Man, Movies as Politics, Placing Movies, Greed, This is Orson Welles (as editor), Midnight Movies (with J. Hoberman), Moving Places, and Film: The Front Line, 1983. He has a website jonathanrosenbaum.com. This piece was originally published in the Criterion Collection’s 2006 edition of Playtime.