The story goes that Tati bankrupted himself on Playtime, ruined his life and career, sinking huge amounts of cash into the picture in order to meticulously design and control every element; from building each and every set from scratch to the unimaginable amount of coordinated extras and vehicles, not to mention the 70mm format. The story adds to its mythos, but the fact remains that, even without all of that, Playtime is an indescribable work of art that captures the spirit of its time and stands as perhaps the only third installment in a series that bests all other entries. From its opening frame to the last the film is a refinement of the themes from Tati's previous work, presented in an elegantly wide scope on its 70mm canvas, and pushes the viewer toward an observational understanding of the work, rather than identification. In all of its visual glory, Tati's film pushes us also to relish in the minutia of his composition, drawing attention to pieces of his vast landscape without the use of cuts and close-ups rather allowing the eye to scan the scenarios from top to bottom and settle on key points of interest. Bits of slapstick are retained from previous Hulot outings, though are few and far between. The Hulot character is swallowed up by the world around him and his loss of individuality in a world of living, breathing individuals becomes apparent. We see no interior thoughts, no weighty decisions or emotions displayed by anyone onscreen and yet feel the weight of a world being overly-constructed into uniform, all color vanishing. By the film's final moments, Tati makes a kind of peace with it all as the behemoth mechanism shows its true nature as a wind-up novelty, even mass-produced smiles come from somewhere real.
Complex systems arise from mass transit of people and information, the nodes in the network, Tati beautifully captured the mechanized world of the 'modern convenience' in Mon Oncle and goes ten steps further to capture the turn toward the computing age in Playtime. It's a testament to his foresight that it all plays as normal fifty years later. When lost amongst the system's most utilitarian elements, the individual ceases to be, simply shutting down and waiting for their number to be called, their plane to board, or perhaps the next spectacle. Hulot, out of step with the world as usual hasn't caught on to the 'keep calm and remain self-interested' protocol. In one of Tati's best bits of lampooning a jet-setting businessman remains constantly in motion in the waiting room, grooming and adjusting his cuffs, leafing through a stack of paper and applying nasal spray, clearly exhibiting his time has value. Hulot sits idly gazing around at the furniture, unaware of the norms of the ritual he's inadvertently taking part in. His omniscient observance of the same man making a phone call to another man in the same room to gain information that is sitting right next to him places Hulot in the shoes of the audience, rather than the other way around. The stiff puttering of the corporate office is broken when Hulot wanders into the world of the consumer as hordes of American tourists exit their plane direct to a bus and direct to a kind of product showroom/shopping center. The young American, Barbara , attempts in vain to find "the real Paris" by photographing a woman selling flowers and trying to get passers-by out of her frame. Occasionally we view Sacre Couer and the Eiffel Tower through reflections in glass doorways, another expert visual gag from Tati shows a travel office with the photos of the same building as various cities and countries, homogenized is an understatement. Various bits of culture are co-opted to be turned into trash bins, every day aspects of life are transformed into 'problems' by which the product provides its own solution, the sales pitch tells the difference between a laughable accident and a 'lovely' novelty item. Tati paints, with infinite detail, all interactions and movements of the crowd, when we step back far enough the entire farce is illuminated at its most ridiculous. No set-piece shines more than the film's main event at the opening night of a find dining restaurant and jazz club. The club has been overly designed in standard departmental fashion, the grand plans of the architect at constant odds with the functionality of the staff's work, etc. Uniforms take on a bizarre level of significance in the structured system of the night out, each player doing their awful best to maintain the seriousness of the charade as technical mishaps and out-of-character human errors threaten to unmask the evening at every turn. The comedic highlights are achieved when, with the aid of Hulot of course, all hell eventually does break loose. The comedy of errors, the drunken patrons and an American diner who 'opens' his own private club amidst the chaos turn the mirror on the affair of modern life like nothing else Tati ever conceived of. The vast array of caricatures on display is matched only by Tati's human touch that we are somehow able to distinguish between and follow each of them in a non-narrative progression that finally achieves sublime cinema.
As the sun rises the city awakens and the carnival ride of modernity begins anew. Seeing life through Tati's eyes is part horrific, part endearing. It is his inimitable sense of whimsy and joy at the prospect of living that finally shines through. The final moments are neither condemning nor elating, but tender and personal. The final circus of cars going around in circles, the woman who bobs up and down on the motorbike, the machine of light and sounds, color and movement starts as a quarter is placed in a meter to keep it all running. Playtime is indescribable and endlessly fascinating.