Playtime defies comparison. To call it less than one of the wonders of the silver screen would be underselling it. It’s a marvel; of set design, of choreography, of comic brilliance. Jacques Tati’s meandering alter ego Monsieur Hulot finds himself in an ultra-modern Paris, and acts as our bumbling tour guide on a journey through its alien streets, businesses and abodes. The set spans several city blocks, every inch specially constructed for the film and every corner of the frame teeming with life, technology and unexpected gags. The lazy will hate it, for it’s a film that refuses to tell you where to look and there’s never less than a dozen things happening on screen at once. And that’s just on screen – the rich and intricate sound design adds an entirely new dimension to the milieu. But for the observant viewer – for anyone who gets giddy at the prospect of revisiting a film with new eyes – its pleasures and rewards resonate to our very core.
Setting Playtime apart from Tati’s previous films is the passive role that his Hulot takes in the narrative. He remains in control as much as his wanderings dictate where we move along to next, but he typically amounts to little more than an observer, albeit one prone to getting caught up in the absurdities on screen. As a proxy for the viewer, Hulot shares our sense of bafflement and wonder, and he’s our only reference point (logic being, that the character of Hulot exists outside Playtime) in one of the purest examples of film as a means of exploration. It’s one of the few wholly fictitious forays into that abstract genre, one that could be said to include works such as Koyaanisqatsi, Que Viva Mexico, and the films of Robert Flaherty, but it’s also a more demanding experience than the aforementioned. But if I warned off lazy viewers earlier, that shouldn’t be taken to mean any casual movie-goer. To a generation raised on active involvement in video games, Playtime is precisely something they can wrap their mind around, a movie where more than anything, you are in control of your experience.