On Sunday, I made my first trip to the cinematheque in a couple of months to see Jacques Tati's Playtime, a film much beloved by cinephiles and now considered to be Tati's masterpiece. Although I had read a great deal about Tati, I had never seen one of his films, one of the bigger holes in my cinematic viewing resume. Playtime certainly lived up to its reputation for me, and getting to see it in a great print on the big screen was undoubtedly a huge reason why. Because of the style Tati employs, it is almost impossible to fully appreciate this film on DVD. There are two more screenings of the film this week: Wednesday at 5:00pm and Saturday at 7:00pm. I highly recommend the experience if you have the time and opportunity.
What makes Playtime such a special work is its complete uniqueness, both in terms of narrative and style. It is difficult to classify or even describe the plot. There is a lead character, Monsieur Hulot, played by Tati himself and the hero of many of his features. But the story is much more about a day in modern Paris than anything else. We begin at an airport and follow a group of female American tourists into Paris, where we see them, Mr. Hulot, and others deal comically with the modern Parisian architecture and space. The second half of the story takes place at night, mostly at a newly opened restaurant that gradually collapses as the night eventually turns in to dawn. At this point Hulot and one of the American women say their farewells and the film concludes.
There is little else really like it, although in stylistic terms it does conform to much of what I admire in cinema. There are a number of very long takes in which the full space of the frame is used. Tati gives the viewer a great deal to look at and examine, a mise-en-scene to explore and investigate. Many times during the screening people were laughing at things I didn't notice, simply because it is nearly impossible to catch everything on one viewing. The freedom provided the viewer is what makes the movie so special and so beloved by cinephiles. It is here that form and content are so inseparable. Tati's style is itself an ideological statement, an empowerment to the viewer to create a world along with the filmmaker. The viewer is challenged as much as in any other modernist cinema, but the film is still true to its title. It is the most playful, most easily enjoyable of experiments, a film that makes you want to explore it even more and to invite others along for the journey. I'm planning on seeing it again on Saturday, and have no doubt that a new experience awaits.