The 1967 film, Playtime, directed by the French director Jacques Tati, was a project that was burdened by Tati’s grandiose vision for the film. He went over-budget with a tardy production schedule. This comic movie uses ludicrous situations that put the characters off-balance to create goofy humor. Without an overarching plot, Playtime is a sequence of scenes that don’t flow logically. They’re each silly and have unexpected turns.
One message of the film is that people are absurd. Early, the movie shows the main character trying to set up a meeting with a businessman. Eventually, he gets sidetracked by an industrial exhibition. After that phase of the action finished, much of the movie takes place at the grand opening of a nightclub with many silly mishaps. The humor in the movie is often visual. The dialog is primarily French with sub-titles but some speakers use German or English.
A theme of the movie is that glass can be a barrier and transparent at the same time. Seeing through glass walls leaves one isolated as an observer unable to participate in events that are so close. A door can be invisible until someone passes through it. At the nightclub, eventually a glass door was just a golden handle held by a doorman. Although a guest shattered the door, the greeter was acting as if the glass was still present. The glass shards were swept away but “the show must go on” so the door was simulated for the guests.
One segment in the film showed some apartments that were designed like department store windows. The rooms were on ground level with a fishbowl wall of glass giving full view into the residents’ lives. In one apartment, I was reminded of family Super8 movies showing travels and family reunions. The host tried to set up a screen to share travels but was rebuffed when the guest left suddenly.
The extra features of the disc emphasized the impracticality of Tati’s production of the film. Tati built a huge city-like sound stage of buildings and asphalt roadways for a modernist town. Tati had hoped other directors could use the same set. However, not long after the shooting was finished, the whole structure was destroyed. The commenters reported that on some days Tati would waste the day waiting for the sunlight and clouds to be just so. The cast might end up waiting and idle for much of a day.
The hapless architect was blamed for the mishaps at the not-quite-ready nightclub. The restaurant manager reports to him many flaws: The pickup window for the waiters was too small for serving plates; a bar that had ornamentation at the level of the bartender’s head; a tile in the newly finished dance floor stuck to a maître d’s shoe. One running gag was a waiter who tore his pants. As the evening progressed, that waiter waited outside and replaced defective shoes, a belt and tie that other waiters needed. Another ongoing joke showed that the chairs left deep crown-shaped creases on men’s suits. A sorry-looking baked fish was repeatedly seasoned with a flourish when staff passed by, but the fish was never eaten by anyone.
The action begins and ends with tourists traveling to an airport. The Eiffel Tower is shown in the distance to locate the action in Paris. The sets are constructed out of grays and blacks, straight lines and flat surfaces. It shows humans in a dehumanized setting. People don’t seem out of place, but nothing feels welcoming. The film is not showing a place where people would want to stay.
One strength of the show is how memorable it is. Even though is has primarily physical gags and silly situations, I can look back and see much of the movie in my memory. Rather than being based on a wide environment and varying settings, the film’s world was rigid and demanding. The world of Tati’s Playtime is strange and alien.