There’s a wealth of cultural entries into the look-how-bad-modern-life-can-be genre, but I feel like Play Time stands apart. The 1967 film by Jacques Tati is a movie about the world we live in, a world of rules and self-seriousness. Which is what makes its playfulness stand apart from the crushing depictions of modernity so common when people tackle this subject matter.
We open on what looks at first glance to be a hospital. Two people sit, waiting for an appointment. It’s sterile. A nurse walks by. The dialog is incidental, just part of the background noise. But then we’re introduced to tourists funneling past and we realize we’re in an airport. So we meet our heroine Barbara, an American tourist visiting Paris in a large gaggle of women, guided by the world’s most exasperated Frenchman. Barbara is younger than most of the other women, looking longingly around her as everyone else shuffles past.
We also meet Monsieur Hulot, an older man with a decidedly non-modern look to him, all argyle socks and too-big raincoat, continually holding a pipe but seemingly never smoking it. He approaches an office for some unidentified appointment. The office, like the airport, is sterile in the extreme. Every wall seems to be glass. Cubicles (which only existed in concept at the time) littler open office floors, separating coworkers who talk to people six feet away from them by phone.
Barbara, looking in vain for the romantic ideal of the Paris of old stops at one lone flower vendor on the street. She tries to get a picture, but people keep walking by, oblivious. When she finally gets what she thinks is the perfect shot, a man shows up and asks if she can take a picture of him and the flower lady. She snaps his picture instead of her own, shuffled on with her tour group. There’s no rest on this breakneck experience of Paris, no time for the dream that seems to not exist.
Hulot accidentally walks onto a trade show floor, mistaking it for the same office he just left, where the tourists wander through seeing all the ‘wonders of Paris’: vacuum cleaners with headlights, quiet-closing doors, trashcans that look like Greek pillars. Barbara holds open a door and the Eiffel Tower is reflected in the glass, but we never go there. This is only a place for gleaming steel and clear glass. The banners at the exhibition show an array of exotic locals all blighted by the same rigid, modernist building our characters are trapped in. Wherever you go, there you are.
The film is full of visual gags, like when the man showing the quiet-closing door is courting one interesting customer while another one sits at the mock-up office set on the showroom. The chair creaks. The pen pops out of its holder. The desk groans when you lean on it and the drawers all open with piercing squeals. Yet the speech goes on about how revolutionary a whisper-quiet door can be. Its farce played throughout the film, as much the point as the background, gags going on in nearly every scene but none of them played for comedy.
Hulot meets an old friend who invites him to his apartment to watch TV and have a drink. The apartment is one of many that are in this complex, all of them with one wall entirely made of glass. They come in and sit down, turning on the TV. Their neighbors also come in, turn on the same show, and watch. Multiple families, all watching the same thing, all seen remotely from the street, silently laughing but divided and alone. How did it come to this, specimens under the bell jar, all having the same experience but miles apart?
A majority of the 2nd half of the film takes place at The Royal Garden, an ultra-chic restaurant that opening for the first time that night. Here is where the film unspools its longest and densest scenes. All the previous characters we’ve met drift in, new ones are introduced, and at first everything seems the height of pretension. People snipe at other people for wearing out of style clothing. Prime tables are stolen through bribery and simple stubbornness. Everyone is eager to be there, to be seen dining in the newest brightest star of Paris, but all of them are miserable.
Every table is meticulously laid out, ready for dozens of the wealthiest guests. But behind the doors the kitchen is plywood and construction workers. Trays of food can’t even fit through the window between the kitchen and the servers. Tiles are coming off of the floor only to be hastily glued down by waiters. The chairs leave a distinctive gold crown pattern of not-yet-dry paint on the backs of suits and dresses. And then the air conditioner stops working, nobody there able to figure out the complex mess of controls that operate it. It is a disaster, a fiasco of incredibly proportions.
But what happens when everything goes pear shaped is that the people begin to recognize the absurdity of the situation. It doesn’t help that the heat and the alcohol have made them all punch-drunk, but soon people are intermingling and interacting and being pleasant and human to one another. The band plays until the wee hours of the morning, and then Barbara takes over on the piano when they drop from exhaustion. People split into camps based on who has a crown-mark and who doesn’t, getting to know each other in their tribes. And our two heroes, Mr. Hulot and Barbara, finally meet.
He is everything Paris that she has been longingly looking for this entire time. She is a charming reminder that there is someone who isn’t old and worn down like him who appreciates the romantic ideals. The two hit it off immediately against the chaos of the party as it carries into the wee hours of the morning.
But soon the sun is rising and everyone files out. Not in the singles and couples they entered as, but in groups that fill taxies and wander into the nearest breakfast place to continue in each other’s company. Seeing so many people together on streets that were once devoted only to businessmen and tourists brings the world to a halt. A deliveryman pretends his truth is malfunctioning so he can stay and be part of the group. A beautiful inefficiency creeps into the system.
The sense one gets from Play Time is of a regret for the way life is going, but I wouldn’t pigeonhole it as nihilistic. People are not without hope, no matter how bleak the surroundings, and the humanity of social situations exposes itself in the humor of a thousand different scenes of people interacting with their environment.
Its here that the visual gags become perhaps the most important part of the film. We’re presented, in our crazy ridiculous cities, to find a thousand opportunities for fun every day. If only we bother to look. Much like the flashes of classical France in windows and doors, even the most austere of locations can be turned into something else, something welcoming and interactive and distinctly human. If only we bother to look for it behind the hustle and bustle of daily life.