Playtime by Jacques Tati

It’s not one thing. It is obvious that you need to combine many points of view in order to be able to try to discern what is specific to him, but there is really a unique sense of observation which singles him out with regard to the history of the burlesque genre, that’s to say to make comedy about everyday life, which, as a result, has an intense desire to change the view we have of day to day life… he used to say in a very, very endearing way that Playtime, the film, really started when we left the cinema, which is to say that Playtime, is the time when we take another look, more demanding, more distant, funnier as well, and that, as a result, it’s true that when we leave the cinema and we are confronted with reality then this critical look must be exercised; that, that is really specifically with regard to the burlesque genre, but there are thousands more, to start in fact with all this work on the sound which is absolutely unique and for which his peers are endlessly grateful to him. It is obvious that the film makeers who work with the sound today like Tati very much. I am thinking of Lynch for example, but others too.

Stephane Goudet praises the film-maker/actor Jacques Tati who is returning to the cinemas now. His film Playtime has just been remade to come out in the cinemas in the 70mm de luxe format.

For many critics, Playtime, which dates from 1967, is Tati’s masterpiece.

The story begins by following a group of tourists who have a plan to visit Europe, to include one capital of a country each day. To begin with, it is a story of hostility. They make fun of the similarity of modern towns, they cast an ironic eye over the increasingly sophisticated gadgets: the doors they can close without noise, the brooms equipped with head lights…

Modern urbanism is put on stage, with its ease and also its incongruities. What makes modern man perplexed and hesitant, lost. We follow the people through the maze of corridors in the big, glass buildings. We pass from one building to another practically identical, first it is a hospital, then an airport, and… a bank. Everywhere the same furniture, the administration, the waiting, the fortuitous meetings, that’s life…

But little by little the people who were lost get to know one another, they are able to have real contact and even profit from this place which is at the same time both cold and fascinating. It is a parable on the way people accommodate themselves to modern life. The strength is that it resists all simplistic interpretation. It is also historical footage – all the work of Tati is an account of the arrival of modernisation – and a film which deals with very contemporary themes. The director Jerome Deschamps was responsible for the restoration of the film:

I think it is an important work, but not just for today. I think that Tati teaches us to look at the world another way, really. First of all he continually asks himself the question about his place in society, Tati. Tati is… he is quite a character. He is a character a bit… a bit like a child. He is a just [hanging] from a thread, that’s to say he is a character who asks himself all the time if he has to participate in the world or not, basically. And he looks at the world and is perplexed. At the same time he is enthusiastic and awkward as well, and it’s for that that he is funny because he is funny without doing it intentionally, and at the same time he is like an infant who wants to take flight and not take part, you see.

There is no real dialogue. Noises and rumblings, rather than coherent phrases, are tacked on to the acting. Tati adored the silent cinema and didn’t want words to take the place of actions: besides it is thanks to his talent for mime that his career started. His genius was in exploiting the soundtrack to that end. Stephane Goudet has just written a book on Playtime:

It’s a paradox: in fact, everything starts with the body and with the gift of mime, it is truly an exceptional and important mime, not only in his acts that we know but in every day life, because he truly had a very mischievous spirit, he very much liked farce, staging gags from real life, and then, gradually, the more his filming advances the less he is miming and the more he is directing.

It’s about making the world hear differently, inevitably, it’s a tremendous ambition, and, as a result, it is a landmark in the history of the cinema, which is to say that he reversed the relationship between the word and the sound, the noise, by increasing the value of the noise to the detriment of the word, and that, obviously, had consequences for the history of the cinema, and so that created a milestone in the recording of images and sound.

Yes, I think that he has really invented something. He has invented a way of attracting attention, that is to say there are many directors, in particular in the silent films at the end, and for a reason: they used to attract the attention of the audience with gags which were completely visual or actions which were completely visual. Tati, basically, did something completely incredible, that’s to say that he used sound with shifted in time from what was happening in the picture, that’s to say that, you can say that you look at an image from one point of view and that you hear from another point of hearing, if you can say that… He shifted things, that’s to say he attracts our attention with the help of the sound of something which is happening in the distance in the image that we ought to hear much lower. And to him, Tati, he makes use of that to make it work in the foreground or somewhere else, or even sometimes, he uses a sound which isn’t a true sound, which is an unconventional sound. For example, there is a simple example, for example the game of tennis where the sound of the percussion of the racquet and of the ball, is a sound, this is a sound which isn’t absolutely realistic. And it’s that which pleases us, moreover… It’s not the correct sound which is the pleasing sound.

Tati died in 1982 bequeathing to us his films. Whilst his talent is well recognised in professional film circles he is rather forgotten by the public at large. It’s a matter of rediscovering him now. Jerome Deschamps:

We are not just making a cultural gesture. We really think it is a work which we need today.

Quite simply I think that there are many people who are going to discover it. There are many young people who don’t even know what it is and there is something missing to be gained which is very important for them. Is the public going to return in large numbers? If I judge it by the enthusiasm of the audience during the [test] screenings, we hope so.

$Id: 2002_08_cul.htm 35 2021-02-12 12:17:35Z alistair $

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