Wednesday 5 November 2008

Play Time (1967)

It's always difficult to know where to start with a Jacques Tati review, because the sort of things we tend to look for in films are usually completely absent, this one even more so than previously. There's really nothing even approaching a plot, merely a theme and the theme itself is less clear than usual; Hulot is the lead actor, if there is such a thing here, but he never speaks and the film merely happens around him. He floats through it, not really understanding anything that happens and sometimes disappearing entirely for long periods at a time. The theme seems to be a progression from Mon Oncle, Tati's previous film a whole nine years earlier. Mon Oncle was about humanity's inability to deal with technology. Here that inability comes down to conformity which technology forces us into and we really aren't good at.

Play Time is the sort of film that has much to offer but anyone unprepared for Tati's very distinctive style must surely end up wondering just what the heck they're watching. Like previous films featuring Mr Hulot, this is effectively a silent movie with sound, which would seem like an insane concept to anyone who hasn't watched Tati before. There's dialogue in Tati films, but rarely to progress the plot, because there isn't one. It's generally used for the purpose of sound rather than meaning, to the degree that the words tend to be downplayed in the mix while more mundane sounds are emphasised, like footsteps, doors opening or paper crumpling.

Also while there's no plot, there's a huge amount happening and the 70mm frame is rarely less than very busy. However because of the way things unfold we need to watch the whole frame, not just narrow in on what would usually be perceived as the focus. We can't even assume that we should be watching the lead character because there really isn't one, not even Mr Hulot himself, and nothing, not one single thing, is shot in closeup. That's bizarre and it takes a while to realise why. We need to focus on the things in the background, which are often more important than those in the foreground. So many stories are told by minor characters who never get the frame to themselves, never speak and never really do anything. We don't know anything about them except what their actions tell us and it's amazing how much that becomes.

Those are the small stories and there are many of them, but there aren't really any big stories, beyond Hulot and a bunch of tourists arriving somewhere, interacting with that somewhere for a while and then leaving, thus echoing Mr Hulot's Holiday to no small degree. We wouldn't even know where 'somewhere' is if we hadn't seen the Eiffel Tower to let us know that it's Paris and this is important: these tourists never see the Paris we imagine, they see the modern Orly airport, some sort of international technological exposition and a brand new restaurant. One key character, Barbara, spends a long time trying to take a photo of an old lady running a streetside stall that seems completely out of place. 'It's the real Paris,' she says. The rest is mostly Tativille, a huge set with huge buildings created just for this film at huge cost out of metal and glass and light. We the viewers see the real Paris occasionally but the characters don't: it's always in reflection in doors or by accident out of windows.

The details are everywhere. Some are quirky and obvious like a plastic model of a plane melting in the heat but firming back up when the air conditioning kicks in, or in the flowers on the hats of women leaving for a night on a town be spry and lively but those on the women returning at the same time be drooping and dead. Some are much harder to describe and much more subtle to notice. Tati does a lot of trickery here, taking something definable and making it seem like something else.

There's a long scene where Hulot ends up in some sort of apartment, which is the bottom left quadrant of a set of four. We can watch him and what's happening in his quarter of the frame but there's plenty happening in the other quarters too. Sometimes they all become synchronised, sometimes there's an illusion that two are interacting with each other when there's really a wall between them. Tati doesn't even make it easy for us by positioning the camera to pretend that it's a split screen: he keeps moving it around and showing us different angles, while never venturing inside.

It's all very artistic, very cinematic in the way that almost nothing else is. What we have is a piece of choreography that becomes abstract art, similar perhaps only to something equally untraditional like Koyaanisqatsi, merely with Tati's take on sound instead of a Philip Glass composition. We're watching balance and contrast, not just as a ballet of light but also by using people and buildings as objects in some sort of fluid dynamics model. It's performance art immortalised on celluloid. In fact at one point people in a street stop what they're doing to watch a group of workmen inside a building move a large sheet of glass in what appears to be street theatre. The catch is that they're inside and the viewers are on the street.

Play Time is an amazing piece of cinema but to suggest that it's something that everyone should see would be the heart of naivete. To say that this is not for everyone is an understatement. It's almost like 155 minutes of watching other people play Jenga. We can appreciate every move, knowing that it may be the last for the particular game but generally won't be. The only absolute is that eventually everything tumbles and the game starts afresh. Is it fascinating? Yep. Is it tiring? Yep. Is there an irresistible urge to stop watching and join in, followed by the frustration of realising that this is a film and so that isn't an option? Absolutely.

It's a dream of a film to analyse. It invites analysis and I'm sure more than one film student has written a thesis on this movie. On the most obvious level, Tati's view of the modern deserves much comment: he was right on more than one extrapolation, not least office cubicles, though he didn't attach them together. On other levels though, that fluid dynamics model keeps coming back to me. There's so much caught up in the flow here that I'm sure more will become apparent with each viewing.

For instance, I caught much of the gradual breakdown of convention at the restaurant, early customers dressed up for a formal dinner slowly descending in formality, class and demeanour. In the end drunks and musicians dressed in loud clothes find their way in, but they're the ones having the easiest fun, the more formal the customer the harder they find that fun point. Yet I hadn't caught anything of the colour in those scenes: I had to read up to discover just what Tati was doing with red and green and patterns.

I also hadn't quite realised what he was doing with shapes, evolving from straight lines and rectangles to curves and circles. His approach to convention and conformity was summed up by film historian Philip Kemp who wrote, 'If Play Time has a plot, it's how the curve comes to reassert itself over the straight line.' I expected the next sentence to read, 'Discuss in 2,000 words or less.'

It's amazing cinema, but not for everyone and that realisation cost Tati plenty. I've read that the production made it at that time the most expensive French film ever made, and he had to sign over the rights to his previous films in order to finance the escalating cost. Partly because of what it is and partly because he refused to have it shown anywhere other than theatres that could show it in full 70mm and with proper stereophonic sound, people didn't go to see it and people who did often didn't like it. Critics, on the other hand, acclaimed it then and continue to acclaim it today. I can see why for both sides of that coin.

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