Review of The Criterion Collection Blu-ray edition. Spine: #112 Release Date: October 28, 2014 (Part of The Complete Jacques Tati boxset) Screen captures below are taken from The Criterion Collection Blu-ray disc, but resolution has been reduced from 1920x1080 to 900x506 and slightly compressed. You may click on them to view the 900x506 image.
When Jacques Tati’s third film, Mon Oncle, won so many awards upon its release in 1958, including the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, it must have been surprising that he didn’t quickly capitalize on that and release another movie in a couple of years. Instead, nine years would pass before Tati followed up his hit with PlayTime (1967), another film to feature his most famous creation, Monsieur Hulot. Nine years . . . But, when you watch the film, you see where the time went. First, the film is a tightly choreographed comic masterpiece, and to time the jokes, action, and destruction so perfectly with the cameras must have been a logistical nightmare — and we are the fortunate beneficiaries of such stress. Second, the set itself, a beautiful, ultra-modern, glass and steel city (called “Tativille”) was erected, making this the most expensive French film up to its time. In fact, Tati levered himself to the gills to execute his masterpiece, and when the masterpiece was not received particularly well he never fully recovered from the financial troubles. Worse for us, who again are simply benefiting from his nightmares, his ambition suffered a blow. But we have PlayTime, one of the greatest movies ever made. Mon Oncle showed an old French world filled with life against a modern world that felt devoid of life, well . . . in PlayTime the old French world is reduced to a simple flower stall, the modern world has taken over, and life will burst through no matter what. Yes, here is the modern world, lived in.
There is the common criticism (or praise) that Tati is somewhat bitter (something I feel more in his next film, Trafic), that his Monsieur Hulot is showing how terrible the modern, busy world is. But with PlayTime, I don’t get the sense that he’s making fun of this world so much as having fun with it.
When the film begins, the stage seems simple. We are in an airport, and there is a couple in the lower part of the screen talking about who-cares-what. Gradually, the screen gets filled, people navigate through the bright, steely, clean architecture in straight lines, and we are flooded. We don’t really know where to focus our attention because so much is going on. It’s going to stay that way for the most part. Hulot himself, while we follow him — and we’re so glad to follow him, and to watch him get zipped out of the frame, as he does when he is accidentally whisked away in an elevator — does not enter the film until nearly eight minutes in, and when he does he’s in the background. Honestly, we might miss him.
There’s also the chance we’ll mistake another character for Hulot as one of the running gags is that there are multiple characters in Hulot-esque attire.
PlayTime is a film about perspective — perspective about physical space, distance, and time — and Tati is playing at 120%. We eventually come to a big, glass building. Our introduction is through a visual gag: a man walks up and asks a doorman for a light. The doorman looks at him and then ushers him down to a doorway — it turns out they were separated by glass the whole time. The walls that surround this structure can be invisible, as shown in that moment, and yet the interior is sometimes just a mess of walls. Hulot has found himself in this labyrinthian building because he is looking for an old friend who works there — and who is extremely busy. At one time, Hulot finds himself looking down on a maze of cubicles, trying to map it out so he can enter the tangle and find his friend:
At another moment, Hulot sees his friend in a room in the building next door. He rushes out to find him, but his friend is behind him all along — Hulot is after an illusion in the glass reflection in glass.
There’s an extended sequence later that night when Hulot runs into yet another friend who invites him in to see his house. We do not follow them. Instead, we stay on the street and watch them (and the other rooms in the building) go about their lives, as if we cannot see them. They seem oblivious to our gaze and in turn gaze on their televisions, a nice layered visual gag. Meanwhile, around us we hear only the sounds of the street. This is an extended scene (something like 10 minutes), culminating in a comic false split screen.
It should be slow — these ten minutes when we just watch some people live their lives behind some glass — and yet we cannot turn away. In ten minutes, little happens in terms of action, but so much is happening in terms of imagery and perspective.
Contrast this slowness with what comes later. For about the last half of the film, we enter a nightclub in its first moment of business. It grows into a mad house. So much is going on that we could pick twenty seconds of film and write for two thousand words, just describing what’s going on on the screen.
And, oh look! There’s Hulot himself on the far left of the screen, without his hat and trench. Though we follow Hulot from place to place, we spend a lot of time away from Hulot. It seems that by this time he was growing tired of Hulot and didn’t want to fashion a film of gags centered around Hulot’s arc. Whatever his motives, the result is a brilliant, perhaps unintentional, culmination of the Hulot films. What with the false Hulots running around, and the fact that it isn’t just Hulot who’s making a mess of this modern space, we get the sense that we are all Hulots. We all bumble around, attempting, perhaps, to follow the lines, but life will jump out and shake us off our course.
The film ends with a brilliant carnival — which must be seen in motion — made out of modern life. Glorious. Brilliant. Affirming.
By the way, the transfer on Criterion’s new Blu-ray is gorgeous. Criterion released the film on Blu-ray before, and it certainly looked good then, but this is, in my opinion, in a completely different league. It looks beautiful in every way. It glows. You’ll ooh and ahh as Tati takes us to the clouds.
Besides the fantastic film and the fantastic presentation of that film, the new Criterion disc is loaded with supplements.
We again get a Terry Jones introduction that runs for six minutes. It was this introduction that made me realize that the old world of Paris is still in the film, but it’s just been shrunk to a flower stall.
More valuable still are the selected-scene commentaries from three different commentators. First, we have a 46-minute commentary by Philip Kemp in which Kemp touches on a number of topics (obviously) but in particular on the triumph and disaster that was PlayTime. Next, Stéphane Goudet, our in-box Tati expert, gives us a 13-minutes commentary that touches on a scene that was originally cut (sadly, this is still not the original theatrical cut). Last, Jérôme Deschamps, a theater director, gives a 13-minute commentary that runs through how some of the gags were executed in the space.
We also get a 26-minute episode of the British television show Tempo International from 1967 entitled “Tativille.” What a clever episode! It goes to Tati’s set to talk to Tati himself, and it begins with Tati walking across a road. Someone whistles — and we get a great callback to Mon Oncle. This is a great supplement also because it shows just how remarkable the set was. At the end, there’s a great one-on-one interview with Tati in which Tati discusses his craft.
Next is a short (6 and a half minutes) documentary from Stéphane Goudet called Beyond PlayTime. Again, we get a great look at the set: the buildings could be wheeled around. The steel was actually just photographic paper. The documentary is also a bit sad. In the end, Tativille was destroyed. As mentioned above, Tati himself lost almost everything.
Goudet shows up again in a 19-minute visual essay called Like Home: The Laws of Hospitality. This feature falls in line with previous Goudet features where Goudet discusses the film’s style and compares and contrasts it to Tati’s other films.
The set keeps packing it in by offering a 12-minute interview from 2006 with Sylvette Baudrot, the script supervisor who worked on PlayTime and a 17-minute audio excerpt of a Q&A with Tati at the San Francisco Film Festival from the film’s U.S. debut in 1972.
If anyone was holding out on purchasing this set because, well, is it worth it — yes. This disc alone is worth it. That we get the others makes it the easiest purchase of the year.