With Mon Oncle, I hated Jacques Tati. By the time I watched M. Hulot’s Holiday, I had graduated to a bitter loathing. Now, with Playtime, I have settled on a murderous rage so complete that it’s bound to be as emotional as I’ll get over someone who’s long dead. This so-called masterpiece, a film so universally admired and respected that its 70mm release at the recent Telluride Film Festival was a cause for celebration, is completely lost on me, though I fully understand what he’s trying to say. It’s not “beyond” me or so complex and wise that I’m dumbfounded by the genius; rather, I’m shocked, appalled, and stupefied that it has remained a beloved classic all these years. So yes, I “get it”, only it’s not funny, clever, wise, or witty. It is, however, one of the most inexplicable wastes of time to cross my path in years. Sure, I wanted to eject the DVD and throw it across the room (not once, but every five minutes), and of course, I wiped my brow on countless occasions as if immersed in a simultaneous stroke and panic attack, unsure where to go or what to do in order to alleviate my troubles. But folks, Playtime is pure poison, and there’s not an effete film scholar or bearded professor alive who could convince me otherwise.
As usual, Tati’s Monsieur Hulot is so obnoxious and oblivious to his surroundings that he comes off as profoundly retarded, even autistic, rather than “quaint”. Dressed in his familiar overcoat and hat, along with that obligatory pipe, he hasn’t changed a bit from film to film, and perhaps that’s his first (and biggest) problem. Yes, we know he’s awed and confused by modern life, but rather than roar and hoot at his inability to figure out elevators and glass doors, I’m apt to lecture the reactionary sot to get out more often and accept that progress need not signify a loss of humanity. I’m sure Hulot would prefer that we demolish massive business complexes and alienating architecture, but the world entire cannot simply cash in its chips and return to agrarian simplicity for the sake of the one remaining holdout who couldn’t get his shit together. The opening of this film involves an airport and a high rise, and as expected, Hulot wanders about, gets lost, runs into walls, and seems befuddled by each and everything that crosses his path. We’re meant to admire the man because he alone hasn’t given in to modernity, but I find his conservatism hostile and off-putting. Our conception of Paris might be sterile and robotic, but surely it’s preferable to Hulot’s Eden of rubber rooms and simple pleasures.
Throughout, we see cubicles, straight lines, dull interactions, and mindless conformity, as if Hulot had a better alternative tucked away in his diseased mind. He’s like your grandfather, or that eccentric tailor in the old neighborhood who blasts the “modern age”, but betrays hidden prejudices with each and every spit-filled rant. Hulot rarely speaks (and when he does, it’s in Mr. Bean-like grunts), but if he did, he’d be as likely to bemoan the increasing number of minorities and “foreigners” who plague Paris, unlike the old days when Frenchmen could drink away their days with snooty arrogance. In fact, had this film come a year later, it would not have been a stretch to see Hulot working side by side with de Gaulle to break the student rebellion that threatened the old, arthritic guard of French society. We know little of Hulot from these films, but here, he is constantly approached by old army buddies, no doubt recalling their proud service to the Vichy regime. But instead of being shot as a collaborator, Hulot was allowed to wander the streets, hating everything that didn’t conform to the romantic age of fascistic rule. As much as a chair should be a chair and a door should look like a door, Hulot stifles his anger at a civilization that no longer exterminates Jews for sport.
The big set piece of Playtime is a 45-minute scene in a hip restaurant, only 30 seconds of which are not mind-numbing tedium. Here, the twin themes of dehumanization and homogenization cease to matter, and we’re forced to believe that serving dinner, fussing with the air conditioning, and helping drunks after they’ve fallen off their chairs is somehow the height of sophisticated comedy. Hulot, as usual, ends up in the joint, where he is allowed to bring down sections of the ceiling to the delight of no one save himself. And herein lies the primary reason why Tati, far from possessing a comic genius, is actually a rank amateur: every bit of comedy, especially the sight gags, are telegraphed so far in advance that by the time they come, we’ve moved on to new business. Surely comedy requires an element of the unexpected, but Tati apparently attended the school where the first rule was, “when in doubt, assume your audience is more retarded than you.” Not only does he telegraph, he explains, meaning that he tells us a joke, tells it again, and then goes behind the curtain to let us know what it means. Since there really isn’t much subtext to a man breaking another’s glasses, the elaborate detail is unnecessary, but more than that, rudely condescending. And when we have to endure these same jokes again and again, they add gross insult to the already unspeakable injury.
Fortunately, Playtime was a financial disaster and, proving that the French people occasionally get it right, the entire country stayed away in droves. Ruined and left to licking his wounds, Tati never again made a big film, proving conclusively that God, rather than not existing at all, pops up from time to time to settle old scores. The old bastard finally died in 1982 at the tender age of 73, far too old for someone who inflicted so much pain on the world. For millions, though, he remains the irreplaceable clown prince; a titan of the art who saw things so clearly that we’re eternally in his debt. But I see little in the man or his movies, and am struck only by his childishly naïve, though undeclared, war on the future. He felt he was making us laugh at our bizarre choices as we drove along the road to ruin, but I’m not at all convinced that what he saw was anything approaching moral rot. Sure, the office buildings that so frighten Hulot are nowhere near the beauty and grandeur of the Eiffel Tower or Sacre Couer (seen in reflections, as if proud symbols of a dying age), but for every item worth preserving from the past, there are dozens more best left forgotten. Hulot — and therefore Tati — had delusions of grandeur; as if, instead of a child, a “mime would lead us”. But that promised land, so appealing in theory and in comedy, would be far more destructive of the individuality he claimed to revere.