"I struck it rich in real estate, making Paris ugly." That's Michel Serrault as the wealthy protagonist in Claude Sautet's Nelly and M. Arnaud, hinting at the problem beyond the Peripherique. We've got a lot of Paris as hell city of the future in the upcoming Renaissance, as well as La Haine, District B13 and whatever else emerges culturally from last year's open-air car barbecue and brick-tossing competition. A look at Jacques Tati's 1967 Playtime offers a milder view of the city's centuries-old troubles.Tati takes a little getting used to for the modern audience. As director and actor, he's sort of the last of the silent comedians (if you don't count Charles Lane's anomalous Sidewalk Stories). There is a soundtrack, though, of English lines amid a bubble of half-heard, irrelevant talk credited to Art Buchwald, newspaper columnist and the man who successfully sued Paramount for plagiarism. We catch stray lines; "I feel at home wherever I go," murmurs a tourist stepping from a bus into a steel and glass hotel; "I can't tell if I'm on the Right Bank or the Left Bank," frets a passerby. Electronic security systems, new at the time, bleat and blat and fart, sealing up victims in glass booths or elevators. PA systems squawk semi-understandable commands at the populace, or drench them in syrupy, organ-heavy Muzak. (It was fun catching this at the 70mm fest at the Castro Theater in San Francisco, because the theater was as full of as much chirping as an aviary when people were turned off their cell phones, right before the show started. What gags Tati would have wreaked out of cell phones!)
Let's be honest: Tati is a French mime, and that's a deal breaker for many viewers. But remember that line in Whit
Stillman's Barcelona about how Europeans hate the idea of hamburgers because you can't get a good one in Europe? Many Yankee viewers hate mimes because they never saw a good one, and Tati's among the the best: No painted face, leotard or striped shirt, fortunately. Since his early hit M. Hulot's Holiday, Tati specialized in the comedy of a man whose business in life was to walk around watching stuff going on. In his 1967 Playtime, Tati is still the same man he was in the 1950s, a gawky stork in a raincoat, loping through chaos in a sporty hat, high-water pants and loud socks, clutching his umbrella, and bowing stiffly at the waste like an dippy bird divining water. Hulot hasn't changed, but in his wide-screen master opus, Paris has changed. The enormous set Tati had built is of a geometric city, as cartoony as the one in Warren Beatty's Dick Tracy but much more subtle. Apartment houses open to massive picture windows as big as cinema screens. And square identical cars are bricked into parking spaces so small that they seem to be laid in with a trowel. A series of travel posters show the same damned steel skyscraper planted everywhere from Hawaii to Rio de Janeiro. The tower blocks views in Paris so effectively, that passersby are surprised to catch a fleeting reflection of the Eiffel Tower or the Arc de Triumph in a windowpane.
Playtime accurately recreates the way a temp employee feels, having made it past the security check point into some 50-story tomb downtown. (If you're highly allergic to financial districts, this movie is for you.) Odd security guards stare; flunkies hold open doors, footsteps clop or echo like rifle shots in the hallways; it's as if the designers are trying to make people embarrassed of their feet.
As Hulot wanders, half-lost through the city, he becomes quite absorbed in the crowd. The second half of Playtime unfolds in an elegant, but jerry-built restaurant called the Royal Garden. It's as much a monument to dysfunctional eateries as Fawlty Towers is to disastrous B & Bs. Over the main entrance, a spiraling neon sign that acts as a flytrap for powerless humans, particularly drunks. Everything waylays the guests: an insufficiently glued dance floor, dangerous doodads and bad angles that wallops the waiters. The air-conditioning fails when its needed most, raising the temperature high enough to melt plastic. The fancy decorative coronets on the backs of the chairs brand the customers's backs with fresh paint, and then there's the food: the specialty of the house (yum, big dead grey fish with the head on) is primped over by one waiter after another until it is completely inedible.
The city is besieged by tourists seeking elegance; Tati treats them with a debonair and welcoming humor. Who can blame anyone for wanting to go to Paris? He's no more against tourism than Buster Keaton was against tornadoes. It's the destructive, hard-to-control energy of them that excited him as a comic. And Playtime gives way to the sentimental French idea of the indestructability of Paris, when an impromptu cozy bistro emerges from the ruins of the Royal Garden, like a blade of grass pushing through the sidewalk. In the same way, a carousel unfolds out of a crowded traffic circle. And Hulot finally connects with the girl in the picture, Barbara Dennek. It's a glancing connection between a Parisian and a similarly lost tourist; M. Hulot presents her with a souvenir scarf with a map of Paris on it, just as she's on her way to the airport.
As a comedy of a city at its most inhuman, Playtime as inspired as what Orson Welles did with spine-freezing Communist architecture in Zagreb for his version of The Trial, or what Terry Gilliam did with London in Brazil. The wonderful Tativille sets in Playtime, taking 3 years to complete, were expensive enough to waylay the director's career for good. And the film that should have been internationally recognized as his masterpiece didn't get an American release until 6 years after it came out in Paris. The 70mm version -- to which any DVD can only be a pale shadow -- didn't get seen in NYC until the mid 1990s.
Playtime has been likened to Joyce's Ulysses; in the sense of the cityscape and its noise and mutterings, are as essential to the picture as the lost figures wandering on it. Lately, in films as different as Magnolia, Amores Perros and Crash, there were attempts to link city dwellers through mutual suffering, Tati suggest mutual pleasure might be just as valid a way depicting our connection. I llove Tati's vision, because the mass of the people in Playtime defeat the ugliness by their every unconscious gesture. They take a planned city and they make it unpredictable. And the director's last shot is star-like lights over an darkened airport. At last, even he makes some peace with the future.