August 17, 2009


In the Criterion Collection’s new efforts to bring masterpiece films to Blu-ray, one particular release this week should be on the radar of fellow Spy Vibers who love modern design- Jacques Tati’s Playtime (1967). As he had done in his previous film, Mon Oncle (1958), Tati uses his alter ego Monsieur Hulot to examine and poke fun at the mid-century fascination with all-things Modern.
Tati studied the architecture of airports, offices, supermarkets, and other public institutions during his promotional trips for Mon Oncle, making observations that became his next project. In this outing, Hulot enters an architectural labyrinth, like a modern-day Thesius, and makes his way through a variety of humorous situations. The 70mm photography of Paris buildings and interiors alone is worth the price of admission, especially knowing that Tati's crew built the sets (and actual buildings!) from glass, plastic, wood, and concrete over a production period between 1964 and 1967. The set was dubbed Tativille. They constructed beautifully modern spaces, vast with long hallways, glass walls, cubicals, escalators, and decorated the sets with minimal furniture and props that often became the source of his humor. To trim the budget, Tati used cutout extras for crowd shots who stood in the background to "interact" with live extras.

In one of my favorite scenes (see video below), Hulot accompanies a friend home where he lives with his family in a kind of department store window. We watch from outside as they sit, chat, watch TV, and people pass by on the sidewalk. Soon their actions appear to interact with the neighbors (in a facing shop window). It is a wonderful, quirky comedy play on consumerism and the isolation of modern lifestyles- not to mention a foreshadowing of the voyeuristic nature of contemporary reality show entertainment and the films, The Truman Show (Peter Weir/1998) and The Model Couple (William Klein/1977).

Tati's films are mostly without dialog and the humor is quite charming. If you saw the fabulous animated film The Triplets of Belleville (a tribute to Tati), then you will know a bit what to expect. Much of Tati's humor in Playtime is based on sounds- the sounds of people moving within and interacting with modern spaces and technologies. There is a fantastic essay on this over at Spectacular Attractions. If you read French, check out the Tati exhibit of sets, sketches, models, props, fashion and more at the Cinematheque Francaise.

DVD Beaver: Jacques Tati, the choreographer of the charming, comical ballet that is Playtime, casts the endearingly clumsy Monsieur Hulot as the principal character wandering through modernist Paris. Amid the babble of English, French and German tourists, Hulot tries to reconcile the old-fashioned ways with the confusion of the encroaching age of technology. Jacques Tati’s gloriously choreographed, nearly wordless comedies about confusion in the age of technology reached their creative apex with Playtime. For this monumental achievement, a nearly three-year-long, bank-breaking production, Tati again thrust the endearingly clumsy, resolutely old-fashioned Monsieur Hulot, along with a host of other lost souls, into a bafflingly modernist Paris. With every inch of its superwide frame crammed with hilarity and inventiveness, Playtime is a lasting testament to a modern age tiptoeing on the edge of oblivion. [See also the
Blu-ray review.]

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