I can only imagine what it was like to see Playtime upon its original release. Having delighted the world with M. Hulot’s Holiday and Mon Oncle, it must have been a hell of a switch for fans of Jacques Tati to tone down his light-hearted hijinks in favor of a fairly strong dose of social commentary. The transition may be a little jarring for some, but Tati retains enough intelligence and charm so as not to alienate his audience as much as he does his characters.
Playtime picks up some time after the end of Tati’s previous picture, Mon Oncle. Monsieur Hulot (Tati himself), the eternally befuddled klutz with the best of intentions, finds himself thrust into Paris for reasons that aren’t entirely clear. But this City of Lights is far from romantic; instead, it’s a modernized mishmash of steel and glass, a maze of cubes within cubes that Hulot soon becomes lost in. As Hulot treks his way across the city, other souls drift in and out of focus, including a busload of American tourists being shepherded from stop to stop. But while things appear almost unsettlingly calm and orderly, it’s soon clear that chaos is brewing just beneath the surface, threatening to destroy the illusion of perfection that the denizens of Paris scramble to maintain — especially when Hulot’s in town.
It’s only reasonable that a comedic mind as brilliant as Tati want to try something a little different after doing two great yet similar films in a row. Just look at Woody Allen; moving onto dialogue-driven pictures that blurred the line between comedy and drama was the greatest thing to happen to his career. With Playtime, Tati doesn’t betray his Hulot universe, but there’s a sense of maturity about the story that’s definitely noticeable. Observations about modern life were parlayed into comedic set pieces in Hulot’s prior two outings, little gags that made you smile and gave viewers a good laugh. For Playtime, though, Tati has put on his game face, keeping a jovial spirit intact but casting a critical eye on where society has taken itself. His recurring theme of technology having cut people off even more from human contact is as strong as it’s ever been, and he has to speak nary a word to prove it. More often than not, Tati lets the sheer size and structure of his Paris speak for itself. His characters have relegated themselves to living in boxes, self-made prisons they justify by claiming it simplifies their lives.
Tati makes no secret of his distaste for those willing to part with their humanity for the sake of having a snazzy new gadget. As with his other pictures, Playtime’s main villain is conformity, which he depicts as an epidemic sweeping across not only France but also the world. One scene shows posters encouraging travelers to visit other destinations across the globe — each one featuring the exact same skyscraper. There are moments when Playtime almost feels like a horror film, and I admit that there were times when I had the sneaking suspicion that Tati had lost all hope for humanity. But just when it seems as if Tati’s about to tip into preachiness, he balances out the story with just the right dose of his trademarked subtle comedy. Don’t expect Hulot to be the epicenter of the film’s comedic chaos; he’s more of an observer than a participant here, with Tati even teasing the viewer with glimpses of other actors dressed as the character. Still, Tati ensures that a good amount of jesting takes place, especially during an extended scene in a nightclub, where Murphy’s Law is in full effect to highly amusing results.
Of Tati’s four Hulot pictures, Playtime is arguably the most admired by critics, frequently cited as a classic way ahead of its time. I enjoyed it quite a bit, though not as much as M. Hulot’s Holiday or Mon Oncle, if only for the fact that Tati’s cynicism occasionally got in the way of his message that there’s still life and color to be found in this crazy, mechanized world of ours. But Playtime is a very smart and well-executed film all the same, one of the rare few stories that can make you think and make you chuckle at the same time.