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PLAYTIME (director/writer: Jacques Tati; screenwriters: from the short story by Francoise Sagan/Art Buchwald/Jacques Lagrange; cinematographers: Jean Badal/Andreas Winding; editor: Gérard Pollicand; music: Francis Lemarque; cast: Jacques Tati (Monsieur Hulot), Barbara Dennek (Young Stranger), Marc Moniou (The False Hulot), George Faye (The Architect), Valérie Camille (Mr. Lacs’s Secretary), France Rumilly (Woman Selling Eyeglasses), Jacqueline Lecomte (Young Tourist’s Friend); Runtime: 120; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Jacques Tati/René Silvera; The Criterion Collection; 1967-France-in English, French, German, Japanese with English subtitles)
“It’s much like a silent movie, following in the giant footsteps of Chaplin and Keaton.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Jacques Tati’s third and last film (shot in 70mm) where he appeared as his alter ego, the comically bumbling Monsieur Hulot character. The others were M. Hulot’s Holiday and Mon Oncle. It’s taken from a story by Francoise Sagan; the American journalist from the Herald Tribune, Art Buchwald, is one of the credited screenwriters for the English dialogue. It’s much like a silent movie, following in the giant footsteps of Chaplin and Keaton. It has the lanky, clumsy and blank-faced Frenchman Tati looking aghast just like one of us might be in this increasingly high-tech world we are unfamiliar with, as he’s moving around an almost unrecognizable modern Paris (with some dim glimpses of Old Paris in the background) as lost as any tourist in the maze of such imposing architecture. On this city visit, he brings out the absurdity in contemporary life through a symphony of sight and sound gags. Though it’s now recognized by most as his masterpiece film, when it first came out the film was panned by most critics. The harsh treatment resulted in Tati experiencing some bad financial times in his later years, even forcing the bankrupt Tati to sell the rights to the film.

Tati is first seen in Orly Airport, as a group of tourists arrive. They all descend on a Paris rife with sterile dehumanizing glass-and-steel structures, as he walks on the noisy marble floor making his way to a business appointment with a busy official who treats him as coldly as the office skyscraper. The gags build as Tati, in this one-day romp, will miss his appointment as the two just keep missing each other due to one thing or another. He gets shuffled along with the same group of bourgeois American tourists from the airport, as the tourists marvel at how the city looks just like their Manhattan and the city of Hamburg they just came from. At this point Tati will make his way into an international expo featuring the latest gadgets and end up being mistaken for someone rifling through the exhibitor’s desks and then as an employee who is called upon to give service to the tourists. On the street, he’s recognized by an old army acquaintance and invited into his fish bowl apartment for a drink. The over polite Tati is too eager to escape and crosses paths with the tourists again in the film’s longest vignette, about one-hour, where Tati ends up in a snooty restaurant/nightclub that has gone high-tech. This set comic piece is one of the best ever done, that brings on some hilarious classical slapstick routines as the place literally comes down off its high pedestal; its opening night turns into a fiasco when the machines break down one after the other and the poorly built structure collapses despite all the airs it puts on. The film ends with Tati buying a gift for an American tourist he’s attracted to, and though unable to personally present her with it she nevertheless gets it from a stranger and is very pleased as she leaves town.

In Tati’s unique self-created world the bonds of humanity we all share in common outweigh the impersonal things that keep us alienated from one another. Tati shows that it’s possible to make a connection with the other, no matter how different they may be from us or whether we fit into society or not, and he does it with hardly any dialogue. A brilliant take on the human condition, that’s as well thought out and presented as anything done by the legendary silent screen masters.

REVIEWED ON 11/29/2005 GRADE: A+

Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”