My two favorite Tati films are Mon Oncle (1958) and Playtime (1967), where the director used his alter ego, Monsieur Hulot, to examine and poke fun at the mid-century fascination with modernity and technology. Tati studied the architecture of airports, offices, supermarkets, and other public institutions during his promotional trips for Mon Oncle, making observations that informed Playtime. In Playtime, 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, cubicles, 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 famous scene (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, and watch TV as a kind of public spectacle 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 films like 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 (itself a tribute to Tati), then you will know 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 (exhibit image below). Criterion Complete Tati page on Amazon here.
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