I’m a little late to the Play Time party, having sampled and abandoned Jacques Tati on Criterion laserdisc way back when, finding his work to require, I guess, more patience than I had back in my college years. But Play Time is new on Blu-ray, transferred from a recent HD remaster of Tati’s 70mm comedy of modern manners that has it looking better than it ever will outside of a movie theater, and it’s clearly a singular achievement. In an essay accompanying the disc, Jonathan Rosenbaum outright disses the whole idea of watching Play Time on TV, arguing that because public space is the film’s very subject, it’s also the most appropriate setting for its exhibition. (The film was probably never going to be a tremendous popular success, but Tati limited its commercial prospects by insisting that its initial engagements in France take place only in 70mm.) I missed that boat — there was a restored 70mm print playing in New York a few years back — but this Blu-ray Disc and a decent screen will at least allow a viewer to imagine what it must look like on a proper screen, and in that it’s highly recommended.
The movie itself is far more of a marvel than I had imagined — a master class in mise en scène, devoid of close-ups and medium close-ups, its long views often suggesting the equivalence of the screen with a physical space. Roughly the film’s first half seems to detail nothing less than the existential dilemma of modern man. The weak narrative thread loosely connecting the lightly comic episodes concerns the frustrated efforts of the raincoated, pipe-toting M. Hulot (Tati himself) to rendezvous with a somewhat high-strung businessman whose attention keeps flitting away. Catching his eye is all the harder because of the labyrinthine commercial environment of his office building — the structure is made largely out of glass, which is meant to provide light and a measure of transparency, but the film’s longest running joke has to do with the way that modern style of architecture frustrates as much as it gratifies. Plate glass is an unexpected, nearly invisible barrier between people. Reflections in glass, which exist in three dimensions as far as human vision is concerned, prove illusory even though they may offer bare glimpses of beauty. And there’s a great visual irony in an overhead shot of a large office space, light streaming in through massive windows that reveal the streets and sidewalks outside, that’s up by a grid of opaque cubicles the workers inhabit. A large group of American tourists is herded through the commercial space, a sort of trade show where vendors hawk their wares from modest, tasteful stands. (Flip-up eyewear for make-up application on the go! Push-brooms with battery-powered headlights!) One vendor sells office doors that have been specially treated to make no sound when opened or closed, which is not only a ridiculous achievement considering the already abrasive din of office life, but strips away one of those minor satisfactions of the frustrated worker, the ability to slam a door shut with a resounding bang.
But the film’s second half is the more astounding achievement. Tati mounts an all-night dance party that takes place in a just-opened (or newly renovated?) restaurant and night club, the Royal Garden. The space, with a tiled dancefloor flanked by stage and dining area, suggests all manner of impending physical comedy, but the gags are deployed with a deft touch, and Tati never gets in the way of the merriment that he places in opposition to the Parisians’ stiff, confused daytime routines. The room eventually blossoms into a riot of movement, with dancers of various degrees of enthusiasm and ability shaking it to a hip live jazz band as the harried wait staff deals with the crush of customers. The undertow to all this is, of course, class differences, with the club’s well-to-do patrons sneering at the arrival of a busload of American tourists and barely noting the herculean effort put out on their behalf by their working-class servants. There’s a great moment when a missing piece of the set becomes an excuse for pantomime when one of those damned omnipresent glass doors shatters into a jillion pieces on screen — it’s an immensely satisfying joke, symbolizing the gap between what people see and what is really there as the doorman continues to work the door’s round brass handle, and patrons mostly accept it as though it were still attached to something besides thin air. Farther inside the building, the restaurant literally begins to collapse, though the party doesn’t. The lords and ladies are having too good a time to notice that the joint is on the brink of chaos. Amid the chic frenzy of the new, an American tourist eventually puts fingers to keys, with the accompaniment of an aged has-been chanteuse, and brings the evening and overnight to a soft landing.
The throughline has to do with the nature of perception. Tati is constantly fiddling with his images, constructing sets and placing his camera in exactly the right place to execute a visual transformation of space. A section near the film’s middle takes place in an apartment building where each living area has a gigantic window looking out onto the street. The camera never ventures inside nor are the actors heard on the film’s soundtrack. The action unfolds silently, and Tati has dreamed up one shot where two different apartments seem to be joined, a woman sitting in one and leaning forward, apparently to watch the aging businessman disrobe in the next room over. What does that have to do with an overarching theme of alienation or existential displacement? Well, Tati even tweaks and transforms the audience’s expectation and experience of his own film. For much of Play Time‘s length, Tati seems obsessed with the soullessness of trendy but confounding and interchangeable urban design. Before the film is over, Tati has subverted that idea, demonstrating how beauty may yet be found in such an environment. A never-ending traffic circle is transformed through suggestion into a kind of carousel; street lights are seen to resemble flowers. Modern life needn’t be so alienating if you can figure out ways to change out your point of view — by, say, finding the Eiffel Tower visible inside a swinging glass door or grabbing a photo of a street vendor who represents old Paris — and Tati’s film, its gently suggestive title cascading through all of its imagery, helps make that happen.