My streaming Netflix selection of late was Jaques Tati's Playtime. Some movies you watch because they sound like fun, others you watch because you have grown up reading rave reviews about them and you simply haven't gotten around to them until now. I was hoping Playtime would be both. I went at it with no preconceived notions, save for the one that Tati (whose work I had never seen) was a genius.
I didn't like it at all.
The movie struck me as comedy blind - there were five minute cutless longshots where literally nothing happened, punctuated by the mildest of sight gags - man pokes a dent into a chair cushion, chair cusion pops back out for example. What's more, the film takes place all within a single, sterile city block in Paris, and after a while it seems less like comedy than a document of the world-view of an obsessive compulsive, someone who is constantly bedevilled by odd numbers and acute angles. The dialogue (in French and English) was meaningless blather. I just didn't get it. Oh and it was too long and there was no real story.
Suspecting that the problem might be me and not Tati, I did a little research.
Playtime, (French, 1697) it turns out, is an incredibly ambitious comedy. A big part of the problem is that I watched it on TV. It was shot in 70mm and meant to be seen not just on a much larger screen but also with the multi-channel sound system that Tati mixed himself. Like those camels in the distance in Lawrence of Arabia, sometimes the joke is simply too small to make out on televsion. And Tati hated closeups, preferring to shoot long or medium. He intended to direct your attention to the funny joke in the upper left corner of the screen by mixing the sound louder there. In other words, you have to completely change the way you watch movies in order to find Playtime entertaining.
The section of Paris that hosts the action is was built especially for the film. Local wags called it "Tativille". It took a year to build and the whole movie took 3 years to shoot. When it came out Tati refused to screen it in 35mm mono, and that hurt its profits. Another percieved problem with the movie is that Tati fans loved his character, Monsieur Hulot. He's like Tati's Little Tramp. Tati would just as happily abandoned him and indeed, Hulot weaves in and out of the "narrative" but in no way is the movie about him.
Tati was a perfectionist; often Playtime feels like a Buster Keaton comedy directed by Stanley Kubrick. NOTHING is improvised, nothing is left to chance. It's said that he directed the actors by basically acting out their parts for them; so in some ways it's as if the whole cast is Jaques Tati, only shorter.
Bearing this in mind I rewatched the first half-hour and while it's still not so funny, it's definitely more interesting. You can start Where's Waldo-ing the gags better. One panoramic office scene, for example, is punctuated by a red blinking light outside one cubicle and a green blinking light outside another. Watch those cubicles. In fact, bright colors are used very sparingly in Playtime and you might consider it a good strategy to mind as you watch.
Okay, so probably Playtime is less comedy and more sudoko. Still makes interesting viewing!