Sunday, 6 March 2011

Play Time (1967) - Jacques Tati

Tati's masterpiece. If you only ever get the chance to see one Tati film in your lifetime, then make it this one. If you get the chance to see two, then watch this twice. Play Time demands to be seen multiple times, not because of any labyrinthine plot or anything like that, but more because of the sheer volume of information up on the screen. Tati films the whole film using master shots, which he sometimes cuts into (although rarely), and avoids the use of close ups almost entirely. This means that the viewers eye is free to wander around the frame, sometimes a sound, or splash of colour will guide the audiences gaze towards a particular point. More often than not though your eyes are free to follow whatever you choose. On first viewing Play Time can appear cold or even empty, but the more time you spend with it the more it reveals it's delights. Quite often there are things happening in the background of scenes that are easily missed first or even second time round. Like the cardboard cut out figures peppered throughout the film, or characters that pop up again and again.

There's no real plot to Play Time, it all begins in an airport, we follow a group of American tourists as they weave their way out and into Paris. Not the old romantic city that usually springs to mind whenever Paris is mentioned, but rather the Paris of the then yet to be built La Défense, all glass and steel, impersonal and cold, straight lines dominating over curves. We also follow Monsieur Hulot (Tati) who crosses paths with everyone in the film, acting as a link to various set ups. First he has some kind of meeting, then he ends up at a trade fair, then a friends home and lastly at the Royal Garden restaurant. The whole film takes place over the course of one 24 hour period, and at the end we follow our coachload of tourists back to the airport.

Play Time follows on from Tati's previous film Mon Oncle both thematically (more of which later) and literally, beginning as it does where Mon Oncle ended, in an airport. Although like many things in Play Time all is not what it appears at first. Tati uses misdirection to fool the viewer into suspecting that this opening scene could in fact be taking place in a hospital. After all that's a nurse carrying a baby, isn't it? Except of course it isn't, the nurse turns out to be carrying paper towels, and with a change of camera angle the hospital becomes an airport. This happens throughout the film, initial perceptions are continually turned on their head. The trade fair section of the film features objects that look like one thing but are in fact something entirely different. Likewise the first appearance of Hulot is preceded by a series of Hulot doppelgangers. Even more so than Tati's previous films this should be considered a silent film, what little dialogue there is, is of little or no importance. With one exception, at the start of the film Hulot is told 'You don't belong here'. I think that is the key line in the whole film.

One of the things Tati does best is the running gag. Nowhere is that better displayed than in Play Time, each character is given some business or other to propel them through the film. So someone that we might see in the background of a scene at the start of the film, could have their story conclude in the restaurant scene towards the end of the film. It's almost like they are clockwork toys that Tati winds up, then releases with wonderful results. There is a theme of both reflections and glass running throughout the film, from the reflections of beautiful old Paris (Arc de Triomphe, La Tour Eiffel and Basilique du Sacré-Cœur) in various glass doors, to the endless jokes based around the opacity of glass, with numerous people walking into doors that were thought to be already open. One of my favourite moments is the scene where the shattered glass door of the Royal Garden restaurant is still opened and closed by the doorman, despite the fact that it doesn't exist. Glorious.

The real tour de force of Play Time is the Royal Garden restaurant sequence, which takes up almost half the running time of the film. A new trendy modern restaurant/discotheque has it's opening night and of course everything goes tits up. It's a film within a film really which builds steadily to it's chaotic end with the increasingly frantic music. It's also in this section of the film that Tati's main bugbear comes to the fore, that of the modern world increasingly forcing itself into people's lives, and the alienation of the people that this newness creates. It's something that has been there right from the start with Tati, and was developed in each successive film he wrote/directed. It's interesting to note that it is Hulot that pulls down the trellis in the restaurant, creating a restaurant within the restaurant, echoing the film within a film set up. It's Hulot that forces people to make their stamp on their environment. It's this human intervention that is a constant in Tati's work. How do people fit into architects plans, and should they?

Now most successful directors get the opportunity to realise their dream project at some point in their career. As is often the case the heart rules the budget, and things start to get out of control. Think of Scorsese with New York, New York, Coppola with Apocalypse Now or worse than either of those Cimino's Heaven's Gate which managed to sink United Artists. Play Time was to be Tati's downfall, both financially and artistically. Massive sets were built which were subsequently destroyed in a freak storm, of course it turned out Tati was uninsured, and from there on things only got worse. Filming stretched out over years instead of months, when the money ran out Tati took out loans, when that money dried up he begged his mother to invest Tati's inheritance so that he could finish the film. The film tanked at the box office in France, which made American distributors give it a miss (it would eventually receive a limited release in 1972). Tati lost everything including the rights to his own films, his home and his and his sisters inheritance. He made one more feature after this, the rather lackluster Trafic in 1971.

Time has been kind to Play Time however, and it is now rightly viewed as one of the greatest films ever made. Somewhere along the line half an hour of footage has gone missing, most likely it'll turn up long after I'm dead and buried. Until then I have this to watch over and over, each time seeing something new. If you haven't seen Play Time, you really should be asking yourself why not and when can that be rectified.

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