Play Time opens as an attack on modernity worthy of George Amberson Minafer, dealing with the personality-free office place populated by cubicles, to the lines of similarly dressed men on their ways home after work or the same type of men all getting into the same kind of car after their work day. There’s some great stuff about television and how, of a collection of people living in the same apartment building, it is the thing they have most in common. The film, in scenic description of the first half, sounds more like a feature article in Harper’s discussing the “American Idol” phenomenon than anything else.
The film is split into two distinct sections. The beginning, featuring Tati’s M. Hulot’s adventures in a modern office building, these adventures juxtaposed with the experiences of a young America woman in a tourist group. She and Hulot meet over and over and Tati presents her in a particular light. She sees something wondrous when everyone else is too busy to look. M. Hulot’s adventures are quite different, more a comedy of errors, with frequent mistaken identities. Then the city goes dark and turns on the lights and the focus moves to a nightclub, opening for business when it’s not at all ready. Both Hulot and the American tourist end up at the nightclub and, after the incredibly impersonal, alienated world of the first forty-five minutes, Play Time slowly becomes celebratory of people. The nightclub scene brings together all of Play Time‘s characters and lets them get to know each other. Except the television people, Tati’s abandoned them.
I’d forgotten the nightclub scene. I remembered much of the film following that long sequence, but I didn’t remember any of the actual club scene, which is odd, since it’s the most important part of the picture. It’s here Tati gets to present his case–while the nightclub staff are frantic to create that alienating environment for the characters of the first part, they hadn’t counted on M. Hulot, who innocently brings the whole thing down. Thanks to him, the construction workers are drinking with the oil millionaires and the drunks off the street are drinking with the white collar drunks. All while the nightclub staff tries to keep the place from falling apart, while it becomes obvious entropy is what the people are looking for anyway.
The end–the nightclub changing the world–becomes a celebration of modernity. We see the world through something a lot like the American tourist would see it. The beauty in the cityscape. Still, while Playtime is Tati’s finest work I’ve seen, it’s also his least accessible. It doesn’t just require patience or listening, Tati uses the entire frame to tell his story and he only gives the viewer a few seconds to adjust to the frame’s contents. The viewer has to pay real attention, or he or she will miss something important. While the nightclub scene is a little less intensive, it’s definitely an active viewing experience.
Play Time is a profound piece of work and one of the times the five hundred odd words of a Stop Button post simply aren’t enough.