Playtime is structured in six sequences, linked by two characters who repeatedly encounter one another in the course of a day: Barbara, a young American tourist visiting Paris with a group composed primarily of middle-aged American women, and Monsieur Hulot, a befuddled Frenchman lost in the new modernity of Paris. The sequences are as follows:
- The Airport: the American tour group arrives at the ultra-modern and impersonal Orly Airport.
- The Offices: M. Hulot arrives at one of the glass and steel buildings for an important meeting, but gets lost in a maze of disguised rooms and offices, eventually stumbling into a trade exhibition of lookalike business office designs and furniture nearly identical to those in the rest of the building.
- The Trade Exhibition: M. Hulot and the American tourists are introduced to the latest modern gadgets, including a door that slams “in golden silence” and a broom with headlights, while the Paris of legend goes all but unnoticed save for a flower-seller’s stall and a single reflection of the Eiffel Tower in a glass window.
- The Apartments: as night falls, M. Hulot meets an old friend who invites him to his sparsely furnished, ultra-modern and glass-fronted flat. This sequence is filmed entirely from the street, observing Hulot and other building residents through uncurtained floor-to-ceiling picture windows.
- The Royal Garden: This sequence takes up almost the entire second half of the film. At the restaurant, Hulot reunites with several characters he has periodically encountered during the day, along with a few new ones, including a nostalgic ballad singer and a boisterous American businessman.
- The Carousel of Cars: Hulot buys Barbara two small gifts as mementos of Paris before her departure. In the midst of a complex ballet of cars in a traffic circle, the tourists’ bus returns to the airport.
François Truffaut wrote that Playtime was “a film that comes from another planet, where they make films differently”.
PLAYTIME (MOVIE 1967)
Produced and directed by Jacques Tati; written by Mr. Tati and Jacques Legrange; directors of photography, Jean Badal and Andreas Winding; edited by Gerard Pollicand; music by Francis Lemarque and James Campbell; production designer, Eugène Roman; released by Continental Films. Running time: 108 minutes.
Tati wanted the film to be in color but look like it was filmed in black and white – an effect he had previously employed to some extent in Mon Oncle. Predominant colors are in shades of grey, blue, black, and greyish white. Green and red are used as occasional accent colors: for example, the greenish hue of patrons lit by a neon sign in a sterile and modern lunch counter, or the flashing red light on an office intercom. It has been said that Tati had one red item in every shot. Except for a single flower stall, there are no genuine green plants or trees on the set, though dull plastic plants adorn the outer balconies of some buildings, including the restaurant (the one location shot apart from the road to the airport). Thus, when the character of Barbara arrives at the Royal Garden restaurant in an emerald green dress seen as ‘dated’ by the other whispering female patrons clothed in dark attire, she visually contrasts not only with the other diners, but also with the entire physical environment of the film. As the characters in the restaurant scene begin to lose their normal social inhibitions and revel in the unraveling of their surroundings, Tati intensifies both color and lighting accordingly: late arrivals to the restaurant are less conservative, arriving in vibrant, often patterned clothing.
Tati detested close-ups, considering them crude, and shot in medium-format 70 mm film so that all the actors and their physical movements would be visible, even when they were in the far background of a group scene. He used sound rather than visual cues to direct the audience’s attention; with the large image size, sound could be both high and low in the image as well as left and right. As with most Tati films, sound effects were utilized to intensify comedic effect; Leonard Maltin wrote that Tati was the “only man in movie history to get a laugh out of the hum of a neon sign!” Almost the entire film was dubbed after shooting; the editing process took nine months.
Philip Kemp has described the film’s plot as exploring “how the curve comes to reassert itself over the straight line”. This progression is carried out in numerous ways. At the beginning of the film, people walk in straight lines and turn on right angles. Only working-class construction workers (representing Hulot’s ‘old Paris’, celebrated in Mon Oncle) and two music-loving teenagers move in a curvaceous and naturally human way. Some of this robotlike behavior begins to loosen in the restaurant scene near the end of the film, as the participants set aside their assigned roles and learn to enjoy themselves after a plague of opening-night disasters. Throughout the film, the American tourists are continually lined up and counted, though Barbara keeps escaping and must be frequently called back to conform with the others. By the end, she has united the curve and the line (Hulot’s gift, a square scarf, is fitted to her round head); her straight bus ride back to the airport becomes lost in a seemingly endless traffic circle that has the atmosphere of a carnival ride.