Talking Pictures

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Posted by keith1942 on September 24, 2010

France 1968. Filmed in Eastmancolor and 70 mm.

This was a feature that grew out of all proportion. The filming alone took two years. Tati had a special site constructed for the film [nicknamed Tativille]. The finances had to be re-arranged during the production. And when finally released the original running time of 155 minutes was cut to two hours, and even shorter in some versions.

In terms of plot the film opens where Mon Oncle left off, in an airport. It takes a little time for Hulot to appear, and part of the focus of the film is a tour of US women tourists, seeing Paris. Hulot path crosses with the women from time to time and then finally all are engaged in a long sequence in a new restaurant, the Royal Garden.

Before this Tati presents a series of modernist venues alike in their regimentation and soullessness. In most of these Hulot is less a disruptive presence than an onlooker non-plussed by the operation of the establishments. In fact, it is the design of the buildings themselves that appears to invite misadventure. Characters are lost in the space of the Airport: boxed in the cubicles at the office building: and bemused by the commercial stalls and their products in the shopping mall.

This is gentle satire, but satire nevertheless: most starkly in sequence where Hulot visits an old friend who lives in one of a number of identical modern flats. The inhabitants are presented as if in goldfish bowls, and appear to follow uniform behaviour patterns. The sense of unthinking conformism that is conjured up is actually a scathing comment on the modern setting and the people who live there.

There is a parallel feel in the sequence in which the Royal Garden Restaurant descends into chaos. Hulot creates a small island community in the centre of this debacle. Yet the majority of the customers continue on the dance floor and at their tables. Indeed they are joined by new customers entering the restaurant, all seemingly blithely indifferent to this little world falling apart.

The film lacks the contrast between this sterile world and any alternative found in the earlier films. The film is set in a Paris that seems uniformly modern and dominated by technology. The closest the characters [and the viewers] come to a more traditional city in is the reflection of key monuments in windows or glass doors: in this way we glimpse the Eiffel Tower, Sacré-Cœur and Arc de Triomphe. This would seem to indicate a far more pessimistic view of the times than that found in the 1950s Hulot comedies.

Stylistically the film develops Tati established preferences to an even greater degree. The emphasis is on the long shot and the mid-shot, rarely do we get up close to characters. The film is also dominated by the long take, and this observational feel is accentuated by the combined use of deep focus and deep staging. In fact, if watching the 70mm print one finds it quite difficult to keep track of the varied characters and movements that are taking place on the screen.

Tati approach clearly fits with Andre Bazin’s stated preference for allowing the viewer to scan the image and select points of interest. It also makes the film feel distinctly modernist in the distance it creates between onscreen and the audience. The latter aspect is made stronger by the lack of a clear plot direction. We find ourselves studying a series of defined places over a defined time space. But it feels more like we have dropped into observe rather than to enjoy a dramatic development and resolution. To this is added Tati’s distinctive use of sound, with dialogue frequently relatively unimportant and the surrounding sound-scape contributing more to the scene we watch. During the sequence in the flats we are denied the dialogue that is taking place inside and listen instead to the street and traffic sound outside the apartments.

Playtime would seem to be the fullest development of a pessimistic side to Tati’s satire. The fashionable modern, the over-reliance on technological gimmicks, and the restrictions on individualist behaviour: these appear to have won out over the traditional, the eccentric and the communal. Of course, both sides of this opposition are presented in partial representations, but satire is never even-handed.

A 70mm restoration was made in 2002, running for 150 minutes. I was screened at the Cinema Ritrovato in 2004.

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