Directed by Jacques Tati, Playtime is a glorious and gleeful comedy about the interaction of a group of characters with the ultra-modern surfaces of the city: in this case, Paris.
While a lot could be written about how Tati creates a situation in which a man is overwhelmed by the massive glass and concrete structures of modernity, it’s really quite astonishing how euphoric the film feels, and how much fun it asks you to have in the chaos of the modern city. The focal point of the film is ostensibly Monsieur Hulot (Tati himself), but the film allows itself all manner of divagations, and so ends up following a group of American tourists, old friends of Hulot who pop up inconveniently, and latterly the entire population of a restaurant, The Royal Garden.
You would need three pairs of eyes to detect every one of the incessant background sight gags. From the opening of the film, set in a grey Parisian airport, the frame fizzes with visual invention. Silly, irreverent touches that tickle you by measure of their mild absurdity. For instance, an old gentleman walks through the airport accosted by a photographer and a journalist; only in the corner of this tracking shot do you notice that the ticket attached to his bag is spinning, as though a live current were going through it.
Why? Who knows. Tati just loves playing with your attention. The backgrounds of most of the early scenes are populated with bowler-hatted men and formally dressed women that look as though they have been transposed from a painting by Magritte. Only, in the next frame, these live figures will have changed to cardboard cut-outs. There is such a switch in almost every scene. This allusive, careful kind of comedy only works because Tati combines a mastery of the widescreen frame with some truly incredible mise-en-scène.
It’s fitting that Hulot gets lost looking in the extravagantly maze-like office building for Mr Giffard just as a viewer gets lost in the labyrinthine detail of the frame. Later, Hulot finds himself invited to The Royal Garden, a recently opened restaurant (all of the film’s myriad subjects wind up there together).
The frames become so packed with detail that only the fabulous orchestration keeps them from being insensible. It becomes a drum-banging, head-bobbing flux of movement and noise punctuated by increasingly farcical skits involving waiters and patrons drinking, de-robing, and ultimately almost destroying the place. But the fact that you’re willing to seek out the detail of a composition is clearly evidence of being under Tati’s joyful spell.