Tati’s Play on Time

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I’ve been meaning to write this post for a while now, having re-watched Jacques Tati’s ambitious comedy film, Playtime very recently. During the period of thinking about the film, I encountered a film of epic proportions (check out the last review on this blog and you’ll know which film) that started me pondering on just how epic Playtime really is.

It doesn’t just have to do with the film’s seemingly protracted runtime for a comedy film; it is actually at slightly more than 2 hours but feels much longer because of the myriad scenarios within it. It’s such a “busy” film that it feels huge. It teases your eyes and your mind in various directions that for most people, they might be overwhelmed the first time they see it. I certainly was.

If Godard once famously claimed that Robert Bresson’s masterpiece Au Hasard Balthazar was “the world in an hour-and-a-half,” then Playtime is the world in 124 minutes. It’s densely packed with all sorts of ideas about the human condition, and at the same time compacts astute observations about people and their surroundings and how they influence each other.

It’s, quite simply, an epic comedy film, the first of its kind if there were any other that followed in its wake, otherwise the only one of its kind. I don’t think anyone has since attempted another epic amount of gags in a single film. if I’m wrong, as usual, please leave a comment with pointers.

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The thing about the film that I want to talk about here is how it literally “plays with time” in a way that I believe no other film has done. Everything else about the film has been talked about to death now, so I won’t touch on those. And anyway, how time is treated in the film is what interests me the most.

You can’t say that the film happens in real time, like Run Lola Run or 24. But it certainly feels like the events are happening in real time. It begins, presumably in the morning, as the unnamed city wakes up, and the airport comes to live with a hive of activity. We meet Monsieur Hulot, and follow him throughout the day as he fumbles his way through a modern, high-tech building, then an exhibition and then through the city streets.

As night falls, we follow him as he is brought to a friend’s house, after which he ends up in a restaurant where much of the film’s second-half takes place.

Upon first, or even second, or third, viewing, one would not notice it, but there are hardly any ellipses, and events seem to happen in one continuous flow – in other words, like in real time. This “bending” of time is made even stranger when the people in the restaurant, including Hulot, come out onto the streets as dawn approaches. It’s as if this was a city on another, smaller planet, where a day is made up of 124 minutes.

This cinematic compression of time is what really makes the experience of watching Playtime feel whole. This is especially true of the long restaurant sequence where we are made to feel we have had a complete communal experience with all the people in the restaurant.

I’m not aware of any other film that attempts this kind of temporal squeeze, but with Playtime, it has several effects. One is as mentioned above, a communal experience with the characters of the film. As Tati himself had stated in 1958, nine years before he made Playtime:

I’d eventually like to make a film without a central character, with nothing but the people I observe and pass on the street, and prove to them … that the comic effect belongs to everyone.

And so with all characters being equal, we, too, become an equal participant merely by sharing the time within the film. In that way, Tati brings us into the film, into that city of concrete and glass, into that chaotic restaurant where barriers physical and psychological are finally broken down both literally and figuratively.

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The most prominent effect is the epic feel evoked by not just the film’s scope of characters, space and the motley hodge-podge of events so varied to almost bursting point, but also by the fact that the compressed time in the film makes our experience of it in our real time seem all too real. When the characters emerge from that crazy restaurant and into the open again under skies pried by the fingers of dawn, we also feel as if we have just spent a whole night watching everything that could go comically wrong, go comically wrong.

I really believe Tati created a new kind of film, and a new way to experience film. It’s one of the most immersive cinematic experiences, sans 3D effects or surround sound. In fact, it’s even more immersive than all the new technological advances can muster.

Jonathan Rosenbaum, writing in Film Comment in 1971, as a correspondent in Paris, had this to say (in reference to the opening moments of the film that feature tourists arriving at the airport):

… Tati has to teach us a new way of looking, and like any true education, this must begin with a dismantling of what we think we already know. During the first hour of Playtime, when all of the characters are wandering about helplessly, the spectator’s eyes are forced to share some of this condition — a sense of dislocation in which one has only the vaguest notion of where one is, and even less of an idea where one is going: the archetypal situation of the tourist.

Indeed, it’s a new kind of film that requires a new way of watching a film. And it’s one that is packed with so many visual ideas that you will never tire of seeing it even for the umpteenth time.

I can only imagine what it was like being an audience member, sitting in the darkened hall experiencing Playtime for the first time in 1967, immersed in the film, caught in the web of its temporal experiment, and then to emerge from the darkened hall just like the characters emerging from the night spent in the restaurant, into a new day.

Tati once said: “I want the film to start when you leave the cinema.” Some have attributed this quote to being about Playtime, but I forget now what he was actually referring to. But whatever it is, it’s an accurate and fitting statement for Playtime, where audiences emerging out of the cinema having been a part of the film rather than merely a spectator, would feel as if they were stepping into a real-life film in real time.

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