The Timeless Joy & Beauty of PLAYTIME

What makes Jacques Tati’s Playtime so enduring? To put it bluntly, Tati’s masterpiece breaks down the very essence of cinema. The elements present in this film make use of the very building blocks of the medium. The two work in tandem to bring audiences one of the most wonderful cinematic experiences they’re likely to ever experience. The Paris Theater is currently halfway through their “Big & Loud!!!” series, dedicated to films that, you guessed it, are meant to be played on a big screen with loud speakers. With essential classics like Lawrence of Arabia and 2001: A Space Odyssey playing on 70mm, to contemporary gems like RRR, Speed Racer, and Roma playing with enhanced Dolby Atmos mixes, it’s a lineup like this that reminds us exactly why we come to the movies. The centerpiece however, is undoubtedly Playtime. It’s the first US screening of the 70mm print in over ten years. And while I adore many of the films in this lineup, and refused to miss several screenings, I believe my experience of Playtime is the one I will remember most fondly.

From a strictly technical perspective, Playtime is likely one of the greatest achievements in film history. This is before even touching upon the pure entertainment value it brings to its viewers. As both a slapstick comedy and a satirical take on modernity and capitalism, Tati’s film plays like gangbusters on every conceivable level. While this film boils down both cinema and comedy to its very essence, this film is anything but basic. Instead, it’s a sprawling achievement whichever way you choose to look at. It’s as audacious as it is deceptively simple. Time and time again, Playtime builds itself to be a vast collage of comedy, yet will sometimes go for the most fundamentally structured joke possible; and it works every single time.

With a few exceptions, Tativille (the immense city Tati funded to be built for this film) is rigid in both structure and design. With a full embrace of modernity, the brutalist architecture found in Tativille is impressive from a technical point of view, yet so intentionally devoid of any personality. The lifeless office buildings are built of concrete blocks, with towering glass doors and windows which allow for little privacy (not that anything particularly exciting is going on in such a corporate lifestyle). To watch it on the big screen is a marvel, but to imagine living in such a place seems nightmarish; an endlessly unrecognizable city where home and cubicle provide the same lack of comfort (or discomfort). Still, there are glimpses of what could be. The fun lurks behind a simple misstep or incorrectly pushed button. It’s in this “perfect” architecture that the comedy of the film soars. All it takes is a wrench in a single gear for the laughs to fly; Tati’s Monsieur Hulot is that wrench personified. Luckily, he’s not alone in this regard, as a select few are also able to reach his heights of soaring creativity. 

Take for example, the extended hotel sequence in the latter third of the film. The hotel owners insist on opening night going ahead as planned, even as construction workers are still placing the dance floor tiles. In the name of capitalism, guests must be allowed to dine and dance, or else what’s the point of such lavish creations? These creations turn out to be a mess in their own right, leaving marks on their patrons and providing the most ridiculous of obstacles in the form of misplaced support beams. It’s not until a jazz musician comes in, and Hulot quite literally brings the roof down of the restaurant that the sweetest, yet perhaps most upsetting, moment of the film plays out.

A mishap causes an entire wall to cave in on itself, leaving a small, isolated section of the dining area to have its very own velvet rope of sorts. With a character playing something of a playful bouncer, many familiar faces from throughout Playtime appear to have a grand time in the makeshift VIP section. With this accident of the wall coming down, a night that’s bound to be unforgettable is created. As Hulot, Tati remains unfazed at the consequences of his actions. Yet as a director, it doubles as a painfully captured moment from Tati. This film functions as a satirical look at how striving for perfection chips away at what makes humanity special. It’s in our mistakes that the most potent of art and experiences becomes unique. I can’t help but imagine Tati filming this scene and reminiscing on his own memories of a rapidly-evolving France. In a growing landscape of nameless skyscrapers that all resemble one another, where is there distinct beauty to be found? To build such a fascinatingly structured cityscape in the name of cinema, only to poke fun at these very foundations of architecture is so potent. Tati’s sadness is absolutely felt in this moment. But more powerfully, it’s in his joy of knowing there are still pockets of the France he surely remembers that the film leaves you with a large smile on your face.

All in all, Playtime is a true pleasure, and seeing this with a crowd is an unrivaled experience. At the time of this article, the film will have one more screening at the Paris Theater, and it should not be missed. There is so much comedy and beauty packed into every frame of this film, and for that alone, it demands to be seen in the biggest (and loudest) format possible. It’s experiences like this that remind us why we love the cinema so dearly. It is a film like Tati’s Playtime that remind us of the beauty of imperfections, and how keeping an eye out for them can provide a far more enriching life. Or at the very least, one that’s a bit more fun.

Playtime is screening at the Paris Theater once more on September 30th. For the rest of the lineup in the “Big & Loud!!!” series, head here.

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