Playtime: Stanley Kubrick Meets Buster Keaton

Monsieur Hulot looks down from above

French film director Jacques Tati was a loping Gallic jester, a closeted clown close in sensibility to Buster Keaton, with a cinematic awareness somewhere within hearing range of Stanley Kubrick. With his ramshackle narratives and interwoven dialogue, he could be godfather to Robert Altman.

Forcing order on the ungovernable

Playtime (1967), like most of Tati’s films, is a serious work gently disguised as a comedy. Or is it? Tati could never be bothered with genres. The film is a stately parade of farce, slapstick, romance, and socio-political observations. The narrative structure is so translucent and meandering, there are odd moments of cinéma verité.

Once again Tati dons raincoat, hat and pipe, to give us Monsieur Hulot, a kind of Chaplinesque character if Chaplin had studied Sam Beckett. Hulot has no agenda, no job, few words to say. He is an innocent in the Paris of 1967—a city of glass, steel, buses and crowds. He is a defacto timekeeper for the comédie humaine.

Tati’s geometrically perfect sets and shadowless lighting contribute to the Clockwork Orange-like sense of detachment, of technology superseding the creators, of architecture ignoring people. Where Kubrick suggests the dark side of state control, Tati doesn’t see the state as having any real power at all. In Monsieur Hulot’s world, the only structure worthy of comment is offered by nature. We are to forgive, not condemn, shrug, not yell.

Usually on lists of the top 100 films ever made (don’t you love lists?), Playtime cannot be summarized in an ‘elevator pitch’. Ten different viewers will have ten different interpretations—which, if anything, guarantees its classic status forever. Bravo Buster, Bravo Stanley, and Bravo Monsieur Hulot.

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