PLAYTIME (1967)

(Criterion/kanopy/VOD) One of the first screenings I attended upon moving to Chicago was for Jacques Tati’s MR. HULOT’S HOLIDAY at the Music Box Theatre. Sadly, it was in their sidecar theater and, if you think that room is ramshackle now, you should’ve seen it in the 90s. It was a matinee and, while I’d seen it before — I was introduced to Tati and MR. HULOT’S HOLIDAY back when I was a Purdue student — I couldn’t wait to see it in a proper theater, even if the screen wasn’t much larger that one in a college classroom.

Sadly, in a predictably Tati-esque manner, the print burned and tore apart no less than twenty minutes into the film. So it goes.

But! I’m here to extoll Tati’s PLAYTIME, both his greatest film, and also the film that would doom him. Before PLAYTIME, he was a celebrated physical comedian who had directed several very visually clever and humorous movies, including MR. HULOT’s HOLIDAY. PLAYTIME was to be his magnum opus, and he sunk all of his money into a number of dazzlingly huge sets, all constructed to fuel his vision of satirizing modern urban architecture and mode of living.

The end result was an absolute marvel. At the risk of sounding pretentious, it’s pure cinema, each frame densely packed with revelations, but never overwhelming the viewer. It’s a marvelous onion of a work, one where you’ll see something new with each and every screening, jam-packed with gags, either with the blocking, a flourish of color, someone’s line of sight, but the film is always in complete command when it needs to draw your attention to one of the few plot-related setups.

I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve watched it. It’s one of the few films I’ll always make a point to catch when it comes to town. It’s an utter delight — one of a handful of films I consider ‘perfect’ — which is why it’s so sad that production overruns bankrupted Tati, then the film flopped upon release, and he never quite recovered from its failure.