David Lynch is an enthusiast, so is Wes Anderson. Jonathan Romney plays tribute to Jacques Tati and to Playtime, his complex comedy about modern life
“Loads of laugh-out-loud moments!” screams the poster for a recently released comedy. Nothing wrong with that – but it set me thinking how odd it is that one of the greatest of all screen comedies should contain very little in the way of laugh-out-loud moments. Jacques Tati’s 1967 film Playtime may elicit muted guffaws, raised eyebrows, jaws dropped in amazement – but belly laughs? Hardly. Tati creates a different kind of comedy – a deadpan kind that’s somewhat rarefied and intensely complex, but life-affirming.
The earlier features of the great French director and comic have their share of hilarity – Jour de Fête, Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday, Mon Oncle all contain slapstick of a strangely punctilious kind. But in Playtime, one of the defining works of 1960s cinema, something strange happens. The comedy becomes diffused throughout the film, to the point at which it is not always recognisable as comedy. Tati creates a universe entirely defined by absurdism, a note that resounds throughout, sometimes obviously, but often almost subliminally. The humour doesn’t offer itself on a plate. Tati makes us look, listen, scan through the mass of information and event on screen; we help make the comedy happen.
Born Jacques Tatischeff in 1907, and descended from Russian nobility, Tati launched himself as a stage performer in the 1930s, made his screen debut in that decade and directed his first feature, Jour de Fête,in 1949. He had his international breakthrough in Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday (1953), featuring the alter ego he later found it hard to shake off. Hulot was a gangling, spider-limbed gent, kin to Buster Keaton and Stan Laurel in his distracted elegance. There was nothing buffoonish about Hulot; by and large, he was more likely to be bemused witness to society’s folly than to cause calamities himself. It was the world around Hulot that was ostentatiously mad: Mon Oncle (1958) sees him scratching his head at the excesses of gadget-crazed lifestyle-modernism. Playtime pushed the observation of contemporary life further: here, Hulot is just one player among a huge cast, in a semi-futuristic Paris of steel-and-glass office blocks and aquarium-like “drugstores”.
To make the film, Tati built his own Paris. He and architect Eugène Roman created a mini-metropolis at Saint-Maurice, to the south-east of the capital. It was no ordinary film set: it contained two steel and concrete buildings, its own power plant, tarmacked streets and working traffic lights, plus several towering trompe l’oeil facades. Many factors contributed to the difficult two-year shoot, which began in October 1964: bad weather destroying part of the set, Tati’s perfectionism and tendency to reshoot, and financial problems that necessitated the prime minister, Georges Pompidou, intervening to rescue the production.
By the time of its release in December 1967, Playtime’s futurism had taken on a slightly archaic tinge; the 60s were a hard decade to keep up with. Tati excised some 20 minutes from the original 140-minute cut, but audiences were mystified or bored, and despite the transatlantic success of Tati’s earlier work, the film failed to find a distributor in the US. The film’s commercial failure left Tati bankrupt, and he never again undertook anything nearly so ambitious; his next film, 1971’s Trafic, exudes a slightly wounded melancholia.
Once dismissed, Playtime is today acknowledged as a radically innovative marvel. No other film uses space, architecture and crowds quite like this. Early on, Hulot visits an office block to meet a man named Giffard; he’s ushered into a waiting room, a large, sterile glass box resonating with a sinister electronic hum. Hulot chases his prey through a maze of box-like office units, Tati’s head appearing in the far distance, somewhere amid the screen’s Mondrian geometry. Then he dashes across the street in pursuit of Giffard, or rather, his mirror image in another building; the use of reflections in glass is audaciously complex. What’s more, much of this sequence is shot from above; Tati and cameraman Jean Badal create a film minutely and comprehensively thought-out in three dimensions.
The sprawling cast fills the screen, especially in the increasingly manic second hour, which features the chaotic opening night of the pretentious Royal Garden restaurant. Hulot is present there, but often disappears into the throng, Where’s Wally?-style. Tati had already wearied of the character, and constantly subverts his audience’s desire to see him at centre stage. Playtime teems with confounding Hulot lookalikes, equipped with his trademark hat, pipe and raincoat. Tati also hides himself in the action, camouflaged; in one shot, he plays a policeman directing traffic in jerky semaphore, but stays in the background, just a living part of the overall scenery.
The film’s mesmerising strangeness rises partly from a tension between the delicacy, even discretion, of the gags and the vastness of the conception. This is minimalist humour mounted on a maximalist scale. The timing disconcerts: jokes are barely signalled, and are often over before we’ve quite registered them. The most audacious sight gag, the spontaneous shattering of a glass door, is done with scant ceremony, and the joke then becomes the doorman’s attempts to carry on as if the door were intact. Other routines don’t gel as gags in the usual sense; two adjacent flats are shot to look like a single space, so that neighbours appear to inhabit the same room. But Tati works this set-up less for laughs than for an unsettling detached oddness; unsurprisingly, David Lynch is a committed Tati enthusiast.
Tati’s biographer David Bellos has compared Playtime’s insights to those of situationist thinkers such as Guy Debord. Where Parisian graffiti in 1968 declared, “Under the pavements, the beach,” Tati shows that within soulless palaces of consumption such as the Royal Garden, there are hidden zones of spontaneous pleasure that are the people’s for the taking – although it helps to have Hulot around to hasten the architectural damage that makes them possible.
The Royal Garden sequence, with its dizzying simultaneity of action, offers one of the most complex extended comedy routines ever seen; scanning the screen and spotting action in one corner, you inevitably miss what’s happening elsewhere. Playtime is as inexhaustible to the ear as to the eye, given Tati’s singular use of post-synched sound, with silence as integral to his comic arsenal as any plink, boing or buzz. One Tati trademark is to use speech not as dialogue proper, but as sound effect: Playtime is a lot funnier without subtitles, as the pleasure lies in getting the gist of what people are saying, and how, rather than catching their literal meaning.Tati behind the camera on Playtime. Photograph: Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images
Today, Tati’s influence is inescapable. Wes Anderson is another admirer, as is witnessed by the extreme artifice of films like The Grand Budapest Hotel. Belgian-based performer-director duo Dominique Abel and Fiona Gordon have pursued an athletic, surreal variation on Tati’s style in comedies such as The Fairy (2011), which incidentally riffs on Playtime’s throwaway gag about a dog in a holdall. But perhaps today’s most Tatiesque auteur is Sweden’s Roy Andersson, who builds elaborate city sets in his Stockholm studio on which he stages grim black-comedy scenarios involving huge casts. His new film, A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Contemplating Existence – this year’s Golden Lion winner at the Venice film festival – is the third part of a trilogy that merges Tati-style deadpan with a Beckettian take on the human condition.
Playtime is about to be rereleased in a restored 124-minute version. The film demands to be seen on a big screen; Tati shot it in 70mm for this very reason. In fact, for film theorist Noel Burch, Playtime is “the first film in the history of cinema that not only must be seen several times, but also must be viewed from several different distances from the screen”. Still, one viewing offers rich enough rewards. And when you come out, you’ll not only be smiling, but seeing the city around you with very different eyes.
• Playtime is rereleased on 7 November. A Jacques Tati retrospective is ongoing at London’s BFI Southbank, SE1. bfi.org.uk.