Playtime (Jaques Tati) 1967

Production Costs: Up to 12 million francs (took me forever to find that)
Worldwide Gross: Around $2 million (from what I could find)

I looked forever for those figures.  Anyway, this is another movie you probably have not heard of, but this was a big Euro bomb.  European movies are usually lower budget because they don’t have companies that can really afford a major flop.  Jacques Tati’s claim to fame was the Hulot character.  You’ve seen the Hulot movies right?  Right?  Anyway, Hulot was kind of the European answer to Charlie Chaplin.  His movies were kind of a funny commentary on the intrusive role of technology in our lives (like Chaplin’s Modern Times), new consumerism, and a mocking of political and social classes.

Tati did not like to play Hulot anymore and wanted to do his vanity project.  He wanted to make an completely open comedy (I will explain that later) and wanted to phase out his Hulot character.  So with company funding and Tati’s own money, Tati made Playtime.  Plot summary from IMDb:

“Monsieur Hulot has to contact an American official in Paris, but he gets lost in the maze of modern architecture which is filled with the latest technical gadgets. Caught in the tourist invasion, Hulot roams around Paris with a group of American tourists, causing chaos in his usual manner.”

What makes Playtime so unique was that Tati created an entire town for this movie.  This inspired Spielberg to create an entire airport terminal for his film The Terminal.  But when I say he made an entire town, he MADE AN ENTIRE TOWN.  He bought a sizable plot of land at Vincennes, paved the streets, built office buildings, stores, homes, apartment buildings.  The city was powered by two electricity stations, and all of the buildings had operating elevators, lighting, plumbing and electricity.  This was not shoddy work, he built a complete town and in a futuristic architectural design.  This obviously cost a lot of money.  The interesting thing is, it didn’t have to.  Tati’s producers actually came up with a good and practical idea.  They suggested that Tati buy underdeveloped land which was in a good geographic area, build the city with all of the utilities, then sell the land to developers at a profit after the movie was over.  Tati would not have that though.  He wanted to “give” this city to future filmmakers so they could have a permanent city set to shoot at.  This altruistic plan unfortunately fell through when he built “Tativille” on the site of future freeway development.  Dumba**.

To make matters worse, Tati was another perfectionist filmmaker.  He would not shoot until the scene was to his liking.  There were reports that the crew would be sitting around for hours because Tati was waiting for the clouds move or that the light wasn’t just right.  Certain sections, most notable the restaurant scene at the end, took many weeks to plan and shoot.  With the exception of Tati, there were no real actors in the film.  Many of the people were ordinary people taken from a local army base.  At first the many housewives loved the idea of being in a big movie.  But after many weeks of sitting around doing nothing, they quickly got restless.  Tati had a real problem when he ran out of money near the end of production.  He actually convinced a relative to spend the family fortune on the project.  This effectively eliminated the inheritance that Tati and his sister were due to receive.  That’s right, he took his sister’s inheritance.  The movie did not do well and made only a small amount in France.  Tati was bankrupt and only did two smaller pictures later on and he only did those for the money.  The movie has recently received recognition and a new DVD release on Criterion.

Is it any good?  Its Criterion, it has to be.  No, seriously it’s “good” I think.  The movie is gorgeous.  I have to give credit to the director on that.  Tativille is a sight to behold and the cinematography is gorgeous.  The movie is difficult to watch the first time through.  I said before Tati wanted to make an open comedy.  I will try my best to explain this but stay with me on this.  I don’t think this will come out clearly.  He wanted to do something different than the average comedy.  He thought in previous films the director forces you to look at a joke, like in a Chaplin comedy, Chaplin is the center of attention and we focus on him for all the jokes.  In Playtime, he didn’t want any main characters or main storyline.  We see a wide shot where many characters are interacting and where quirky and funny things are happening all over the place.  The audience can choose what to look at and what to laugh at.  Clear as mud?  The movie is almost a silent movie where we get scant dialogue and mostly visual humor.  The problem is, the first time through, you are struggling to find the humor.  It is so subtle and quiet, you have to be on your guard to spot it.  Its so hard to spot, that many times you think you are watching nothing.  This can lead many viewers to boredom.  Reviewers like Roger Ebert and Jonathan Rosenbaum suggest that you watch it multiple times to catch all the humor.  I might be patient enough to do that, but most people aren’t.  So it’s a good movie.  That’s all I have to say.  Dang, I talked a lot about this.


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