Directed by Jacques Tati
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1 1080p AVC codec
Running Time: 124 minutes
Audio: PCM 2.0 French (some English)
MSRP: $ 39.95
Release Date: August 18, 2009
Review Date: July 28, 2009
Oscar-winning wunderkind Jacques Tati rolled the dice and went for broke with his enormously imaginative and expensive comedy marathon Playtime, and broke is exactly what happened as the film crashed and burned both critically and financially, bankrupting the auteur filmmaker and even soiling his reputation for a number of years. Eventually, through diligent hard work, he was able to regain some of his enormous financial loss, and before his death, his ultimate film began to be reexamined and even admired. For many, it’s his greatest achievement, and even for those like me who don’t think it’s quite the delirious ride of his previous two works, there is no denying that Playtime is crammed with invention, wit, and humor. That it occasionally runs out of gas or milks gags beyond their effectiveness is not to say that the movie isn’t marvelous. It’s just occasionally too much of a good thing.
Tati’s comic alter ego Monsieur Hulot is one of a number of people who are maneuvering through a modern-day Paris of imposing but impersonal glass, steel, and chrome office buildings, beautiful but lacking in the charm and old-world magic of the City of Lights. Whether it’s arriving at Orly Airport, bustling around inside a monstrously large modern office building, taking a tour of a trade exposition of perfected new household goods, visiting an old friend at his ultramodern apartment complex, or bumbling the night away at the opening celebration of a posh new Parisian night spot, Hulot and a group of American tourists, one of whom Hulot finds himself attracted to (Barbara Dennek), discover innumerable ways to make a dicey situation with the club’s not-quite-ready ambiance a memorable night despite the catastrophes.
The film as it now stands (it originally ran at least thirty minutes longer than the current release) basically has an overture of sounds, four acts, and a coda, and the only problem with any of them is that however rich in comic inspiration they are (and all of them are), each section runs on just a bit too long for the freshness and fun not to dissipate just a little. The overture is the Orly sequence as we hear a medley of clicking heels on shiny linoleum as people begin entering and leaving a specific concourse. Clicking heels is one of the innumerable running gags Tati seems irreversibly fond of. He’s also fond of pulling tricks on his audience as he has inserted a number of faux Hulots before the real one arrives some thirteen minutes into the movie. The office building sequence features the modern day gadgetry (intercoms, automatic doors, mazes of identical cubicles that one would need a map to traverse) that Tati exploits to the max, concentrating on the endlessly rigid straight lines and rectangular corners which make each new building the identical twin of the others around it. The appliance and device expo that satirizes new fangled inventions that are wonky without being especially practical (flip-out eyeglasses, Greek column trash cans, vacuums with headlights, silent doors) is probably the least successful sequence, but the visit with an old friend at his posh new pad is wittily staged and filmed, often making it appear that tenants of side-by-side apartments are watching one another’s private activities.
This is followed by the film’s most celebrated sustained comic sequence, the opening night of the Royal Garden nightclub. With faulty wiring, chairs that are lethal weapons, tiling that is not firmly stuck to the floor, non-operational air conditioning, a serving window that’s too small to get trays through, a broken entrance door (courtesy of M. Hulot), and so much more, it’s hard to imagine what else Tati could have scripted to go wrong. This 50-minute sequence is brilliantly conceived and shot, but once again simply wears out the viewer with its endless supply of somewhat repetitive gags. The film’s coda, a sweet, softly funny parting of Hulot and his new attraction, leads into the traffic carousel, a gag he would exploit further in his next Hulot film Trafic.
As with the previous Tati films, what is said is often not of much importance; his visual sense combining sight gags and expert mime from himself and his fellow players gives the film another unique quality. Kudos to Tony Andal who handles his business as the doorman to the Royal Garden hilariously. Barbara Dennek has a quiet kind of charm as the American girl Hulot crushes on while Michel Francini as the headwaiter and André Fouché as the manager milk all of their laughs at the booby-trapped nightclub expertly.
The film has been framed at 1.85:1 and is presented in a 1080p transfer using the AVC codec. Presented originally in 65mm, the transfer of the movie has no problems with sharpness at all though Tati has deliberately kept the color palette rather bland so that the occasional red or green really stands out. The opening credit sequence has scratches and dirt, but after that, the image is remarkably clean and completely free of aliasing or moiré that with all of the tight line structures present could have wreaked havoc with the image. The white subtitles are easy to read. The film has been divided into 24 chapters.
The PCM (2.3 Mbps) 2.0 audio mix does not have terrific fidelity (the film was post-synched for the most part which always has a sort of flat sound), but there are certainly no pops, hiss, crackle, or flutter to ruin the marvelously inventive use of sound effects that enhance much of the film’s comic business. The whimsical music of James Campbell and Francis Lemarque is nicely presented in this Blu-ray release. There is an alternate international soundtrack available for the viewer to choose, but I listened to the original French language version.
All of the bonus video featurettes are presented in 1080i.
Filmmaker Terry Jones offers an introduction to the movie that should be bypassed for first time viewers. He gives away many gags in his effusive praise of the film. It runs 6 ¼ minutes.
A select scene commentary by film historian Philip Kemp offers astute analysis of the film’s high points, and running only 46 ¾ minutes is an economical way to present a worthwhile examination in less than half the time it would take to rewatch the film.
Au-delà de “Playtime” is a superb behind-the-scenes look at the making of the film hosted by Stephane Goudet and featuring archival footage of the construction and destruction of the sets along with Tati directing actors during rehearsals. It runs for 6 ½ minutes.
Tati Story is a 20 ½-minute biographical film on the life and films of Jacques Tati using a generous helping of film clips from the movies discussed in telling his story.
“Jacques Tati in Monsieur Hulot’s Work” is a 1976 interview filmed for the BBC Omnibus program featuring interviewer Gavin Millar questioning the director about his films. Even more extensive clips from his works are utilized in this 49 ½-minute program.
A radio interview with the legendary filmmaker recorded in 1972 at the U.S. premiere of Playtime in San Francisco lasts 16 ¾ minutes and features Tati rather humbly talking about his achievements and seemingly very touched by the film’s wonderful reception.
Script supervisor Sylvette Baudrot gives a 12 ¼ -minute video interview dealing with Tati’s directorial methods and the tricks he would sometimes use to get the effects he wanted.
Cours du soir, Tati’s 1967 short, was written by him but directed by Nicolas Lybowski. It’s a very droll short piece about a professor’s instructing his students in the intricacies of mime using the technique on such activities as smoking a cigarette, playing tennis, going fishing, delivering postal mail and telegrams, and riding horseback. It runs for 27 ¾ minutes.
The enclosed folded pamphlet contains a cast and crew list, four color stills, and an interesting appreciation of the movie by film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum.
The Criterion Blu-rays include a maneuvering tool called “Timeline” which can be pulled up from the menu or by pushing the red button on the remote. It shows you your progress on the disc, the title of the chapter you’re now in, and index markers for the commentaries that go along with the film, all of which can be switched on the fly. Additionally, two other buttons on the remote can place or remove bookmarks if you decide to stop viewing before reaching the end of the film or want to mark specific places for later reference.
4.5/5 (not an average)
Playtime is an ambitious, original work of much brilliance, and this Blu-ray release with all of the previously included extras is its definitive home video presentation. Highest recommendation!