Play Time (Tati, 1967)
Play Time is a film of astonishing complexity. Tati’s performance of this mammoth piece succeeds as both a satire on the absurdity of modern tourism and an unthinkable demonstration of fulfilled imagination. It is famously unwatchable in one sitting. That’s not true, but it does yield magnificent insights for those who brave this new Paris.
Tati constructs Play Time in unflinching diagonals. Like Hitchcock’s North By Northwest, from which it clearly takes influence, the film revels in the construction of right angles but is always photographed from a diagonal. This is the source of subtle visual tension which Tati is able to sustain throughout the entire process. It is a touch that renders Play Time with that elusive coherence and consistency usually absent in the presence of absurdity. Another component to the consistency is character. Barbara and Hulot share our curiosity and confusion. We are grounded in their solid construction like we would be in any more conventional narrative. Hulot is the perfect character to take us through this labyrinth. Tati, acting as Hulot, plays both our emotional (Hulot — curiosity, confusion, exploration) and physical (director — mise en scene) tour guide. Ultimately, the style is arresting. Angular tension binds with bold consistency to create an entirely watchable film.
In addition, Tati out-Altman’s Altman years before M*A*S*H made him popular. The sound is layered and marvelous, not unlike the visuals, and just as dense with gags. Primary focal points are invariably covered up. English speaking audiences will be rewarded by numerous auditory jokes in both foreground and buried deep into the background. The visual gags are numerous and often simultaneous. Scenes involve incredibly dense, complex, precise comic choreography. Not unlike Keaton, Tati possesses unshakable artistic control and a belief in the subtle comedy of location.
Play Time is an astonishing ballet of cinematic possibilities. One only has to think of someone like Malick to realize that Tati imbues every frame with electricity and spirit while making it look effortless. Is it a perfect film? If not, the accomplishment is nothing short of being, quite literally, an absurd miracle. Play Time is a grand fugue of the cinema with lighthearted subject and angular answer. It is capable of anything — arresting crescendi, subtle sequencing, revealing comedy, and simple beauty. How Tati managed to fulfill this dream will forever remain an object of fascination and a testament to the potential of genius.
98.8 (The highest rating I’ve yet assigned)