Friday, January 24, 2014

Watch This: Playtime

A bi-weekly series featuring a recommendation of a movie available in the Reeves Memorial Library DVD collection

Playtime (1967)
Written and directed by Jacques Tati

Jacques Tati's Playtime is undoubtedly one of cinema's most unique viewing experiences.  It has no central plot, no central character (at least, in the traditional sense), and very little dialogue.  While it can certainly be described as a comedy, the humor comes not from jokes with punchlines, but rather from elaborately choreographed visual gags and the recognition of familiar situations and human behavior.

Tati himself reprises the role of Mr. Hulot, the beloved character he played in the earlier films Mr. Hulot's Holiday (1953) and Mon Oncle (1958), as he navigates his way through the baffling, impersonal landscape of a modern Paris dominated by the sterile architecture of glass-enclosed skyscrapers.  However, Hulot is in the background for much of Playtime, which focuses a good deal of its attention on a group of American tourists.  One hardly even notices Hulot's first appearance in the film's opening airport scene.

From the airport, Hulot visits an office building full of vast, cubicle-filled expanses, and later runs into an old Army buddy, who invites him to his flat.  Hulot's path converges with that of the tourists for the film's lengthy final sequence, in which all manor of chaos takes place at a restaurant on its opening night.  At one point, Hulot's trademark bumbling leads to the accidental shattering of the restaurant's glass front door.  The quick-witted doorman continues to hold the large brass door handle in midair, opening and closing an imaginary door for the restaurant's unsuspecting patrons.

Tati, in this film and the earlier Mr. Hulot films, demonstrates a penchant for visual humor that is unmatched in the post-silent film era, using long shots and filling the screen with activity that does not always immediately call attention to itself, giving the viewer the impression that repeat viewings will reveal a wealth of previously unnoticed details.  It is a film that requires patience from the viewer, something which many modern audiences might find off-putting, but one that rewards those who embrace Tati's playful vision of man's relationship to the modern world.

Playtime is available on both DVD and Blu-ray from the Reeves Memorial Library collection.

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