Why was Playtime a failure, sending Jacques Tati into bankruptcy and costing him control over his life's work of films? His previous film, My Uncle, had been a commercial and artistic success. M. Hulot's Holiday and Jour de Fete had gained Tati world-wide recognition and respect. He had become recognized as one of the few authentic geniuses of film.
Watch Playtime and I think you'll find the answer. Tati in his earlier films placed Hulot in situations where we could empathize with him. Hulot was an innocent. As we came to like him, we also came to like the people he encountered. Even with their pretensions and idiosyncrasies, we could see something of ourselves in them. Tati might be holding up a mirror for us to look in, but M. Hulot was such a gentle companion that we smiled as we recognized ourselves.
With Playtime, there is little Hulot. Instead, we have Tati's view on all sorts of social and cultural issues, from the sterility he saw in much of modern life to modern architecture, group behavior, impersonal offices, loneliness, boorishness and American tourists. We're observers, and our job is to share Tati's viewpoint. Hulot, now middle-aged, has become a minor player in the film. In his earlier movies, Tati was careful to give us small numbers of people with whom, along with Hulot, we could come to know. In My Uncle, for instance, it was essentially one family and one modern home, along with Hulot's own apartment and his neighbors. In M. Hulot's Holiday, it was a small seaside hotel and its guests. With Playtime, we have a large, impersonal office building, all glass and right angles, filled with people -- employees, visitors, exposition guests, customers. Then we have an apartment building with huge curtain-less windows allowing the pedestrians to look right in, and we're among the pedestrians. Then we have a nightclub filled with customers, waiters and managers. There is little opportunity to get to know any of these people, much less develop affection for them.
However, as with all his movies, Tati fills Playtime with streams of intricate and carefully developed comic situations (although comic is too broad a term), often that build from small happenings we've barely noticed. There is only sporadic and incidental dialogue, but sound effects are vital to the movie, as subtle and amusing as what we see.
As sterile and unattractive as Tati makes the airport, the office building, a convenience store and the apartment, there are such odd and subtle sights as the bobbing wimple wings on two nuns, a floor sweeper staring at a booted officer, Hulot suddenly sliding down a floor, glass windows and doors impossible to tell if they're there or not, a table lamp that dispenses cigarettes, strange-looking and wobbling food at a self-service counter...and the list simply goes on. And it's not just one thing at a time. Tati can fill a screen with all sorts of amusing occurrences, some happening in the foreground, some in back, some at the sides.
The last hour of the movie takes place in a modern nightclub, the Royal Garden, which has just opened and is barely ready for its customers. A dance floor tile sticks to a maitre d's shoe, a fish is ostentatiously finished table-side by a waiter...then finished again and again by mistake while the two customers ooh and ah. A bow tie falls in the sauce. A bus-load of tourists suddenly appear. When Hulot manages to accidently shatter one of the glass doors to the restaurant, it is a culmination to all those glass walls we've been looking through and walking into. The follow-up gag with the round door opener is almost worth the price of the DVD. As the modern restaurant gradually disintegrates around us, Tati finally begins to ease up on personal viewpoints and let's us simply enjoy the sight of people becoming more like people. And that, I suspect, is the point Tati wanted to make. In an odd sort of way, the last ten minutes evoke the humor and warmth of previous Tati movies...a packed traffic circle with all the cars moving slowly together; a father taking a toy horn from his little boy and blowing it, too; the bittersweet last look at Hulot walking past a bus where a young woman he met at the nightclub is being taken to the airport with her tourist group.
If you like Tati's viewpoint on the impersonalization of modern society, you'll probably like Playtime. Some critics call it his masterpiece. If you like Tati, I think Playtime is essential, if only to understand what happened to him. The movie is an idiosyncratic and gallant failure, in my view, and much too long. Still, I'd rather watch Playtime than most of what passes as genius in films today.
The new Criterion release looks very good. This edition has several extra features including supplements about Tati and an audio interview with him. The case also contains an insert with an essay by Jonathan Rosenbaum, identified as a film critic.