Movie Review: Playtime
By Michael Wilmington, Tribune Movie Critic
"Playtime," that playful masterpiece by the great French comedy-maker Jacques Tati, is a supremely happy film with an extremely unhappy history. But the movie's sad back story ends as well as possible, with Friday's local premiere, at the Music Box, of the restored, lengthened "Playtime": the 126-minute version, unseen for decades and shown in 70 mm and four-track stereo (as Tati intended), of a film many critics now regard as one of the all-time peaks of French and world cinema.
"Playtime" is a movie with an intoxicating effect. It was the third M. Hulot comedy after the '50s international hits, "M. Hulot's Holiday" (1953) and Tati's Oscar-winner "Mon Oncle" (1958). And, with "Hulot's Holiday," it's his greatest film, an extraordinary mix of aesthetic rigor and comic madness. One watches "Playtime" giddy, elated, with the same pure delight with which, as a child, you might have watched the best silent comedies of Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton. It's so wondrously strange and crazily reassuring: this champagne-and-popcorn movie in which a lone bumbling Parisian in a raincoat - Tati's diffident, pipe-smoking, umbrella-wielding M. Hulot - wends his awkward way though a modern Paris full of steel, glass, concrete and severe right angles.
All around Hulot are hordes of impeccable Parisians, all stiffly conforming to those modernist straight lines, and a busful of bubbly international tourists, including one stunning "touriste" (Barbara Dennek) who caches Hulot's filmy eye. As the confused but endlessly good-natured Hulot bumps into one comic miscue after another - trapped in elevators, befuddled by glass walls, lost in a maze of cubicles and waiting rooms - he is finally released into a climactic bacchanal at a hot, malfunctioning new nightclub. There, to the club band's jazzy beat, with a menage of drunken, delirious multinational customers, Tati the cineaste restores disorder and humanity, bending the whole world back into curves, carousels and euphoria by "Playtime's" end.
Tati shot "Playtime" not in the real Paris but in his own creation, an intricate skyscraper exterior-and-interior set that was inevitably dubbed "Tativille." ("Playtime" may be the only great film that actually lists an "architect," Eugene Roman, among its credits). That set is one of the wonders of "Playtime," though it caused Tati massive problems, meteorological (rainstorm destruction) as well as financial. To finish his film, after falling behind, he signed away the rights to "Playtime" and other films. Later, he was helpless to stop their mutilation by moneymen, a chaos that the current restorers labored well to correct.
Yet as we watch "Playtime" today, in this finely restored version, the problems seem miniscule. Is there any other "troubled" production that has such a vivifying effect? A joyous celebration of human eccentricity and individuality in the postwar, mechanized, skyscraper world of the '60s, "Playtime" may have failed initially to reach a world audience, been underrated by some critics and caused the financial ruin of writer-producer-director-star Tati. But its glorious, effervescent comic spirit, and his, survives everything. Bravo, M. Hulot! (And watch that umbrella!)
Directed, written and produced by Jacques Tati; English dialogue by Art Buchwald; photographed by Jean Badal, Andreas Winding; edited by Gerard Pollicand; architecture and sets designed by Eugene Roman; music by Francis Lemarque (with David Stein and James Campbell). A Janus Films/Home Vision Entertainment release; opens Friday at The Music Box Theatre. In very minimal French, German and English, without subtitles. Running time: 2:06. No MPAA rating. Family.
M. Hulot - Jacques Tati
The Young Tourist - Barbara Dennek
Mr. Schultz - Billy Kearns
M. Lucs - John Abbey
The Singer - Nicole Ray
M. Giffard - Georges Montant
Mme. Giffard - Erika Dentzler