The films of Jacques Tati have never really been about the plot. Even his earliest efforts are more interested in the visual gag, how it’s set up and how it is executed, far more than in finding any kind of narrative-led justification for getting there. Play Time (or the camel-case PlayTime as Criterion prefers) is arguably Tati’s greatest achievement — it’s certainly my favourite of his films — and the refinement of his lifelong work on this pure gag-based visual technique. It’s essentially an absurdist avant garde film, almost entirely lacking in any kind of plot aside from having Tati’s familiar Hulot character bumbling around a gargantuan modernist set of his own devising. He encounters various people — bureaucrats, attendants, service workers and tourists — but it’s never clear what he’s trying to do or where he’s trying to go. Maybe I just missed something, but I’ve seen the film four times now and I’m no more the wiser. That said, I don’t really care. The visual world he creates is an advance on Mon oncle (1958), which contrasted the futuristic minimalist modernism of the nouveau riche upper-middle-classes with a decaying old world of Hulot. That latter world is entirely gone, aside from brief sightings of various familiar landmarks (like the Tour Eiffel and Sacre-Cœur) as reflections in the glass doors of Tati’s grim, grey concrete and steel office blocks. Hilariously, even tourist posters of other world cities just show these grey office blocks with their familiar tourist sights in the background.
A lot of the humour is of this variety and requires an active viewer scouring the many corners of the image to find them. Rarely is there a close-up to focus our attention, and many gags are played out across the space, sometimes with multiple different gags happening at the same time. One example might be when M. Giffard, a bureaucratic functionary, needs to give some data to a visiting American businessman, who calls his office from another in a series of hive-like cubicles viewed from above; Giffard then proceeds to leave his cubicle, open a filing cabinet on the outside of the office the American is calling from, and then returns to his own to relay the information back. All the while Hulot is standing in the extreme background waiting for Giffard to leave so he can speak to him (about what is never made clear). It’s this kind of long-shot staging that means the film is best seen on a 70mm print in the cinema, so for viewing at home, a big screen is almost required. Thankfully the Criterion edition presents the film in a pristine digital restoration that makes these kinds of setups clear, but no viewer will get everything going on in a single viewing, especially during a scene as hectic and extended as the bravura restaurant sequence that dominates much of the second hour.
Just recounting all the ways in which Play Time brilliantly uses its space to tell visual-led gags would take up far too long. Not all viewers will connect with this style, and I’ve certainly heard some say the film is boring or arid. It certainly makes little concession to the audience and requires an active, attentive viewing of the film — for example, there’s a 10 minute sequence inside an apartment which is viewed entirely from the street outside, and so we hear nothing of what is said by the characters. That said, it develops some of the most beautifully understated comic sequences in all of cinema, few of which even require the subtitles to be understood (there is some language-based humour emerging from the babble of voices, amongst which French, German and English dominate, but Hulot barely speaks at all), and all of it takes place on a set presenting a vision of modern times so self-contained and overwhelming that the experience can be a little deadening. Nevertheless, it’s a remarkable achievement all the same, and one that Tati would never again be given the same budget to achieve.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Jacques Tati; Writers Tati and Jacques Lagrange; Cinematographers Jean Badal and Andréas Winding; Starring Jacques Tati; Length 124 minutes.
Seen at the Filmhouse, Edinburgh, Friday 12 September 2003 (and before that on VHS at home, Wellington, December 1999 and August 2001, and most recently on Blu-ray at home, London, Sunday 24 July 2016).