Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week: Shhhhhh! We’re celebrating movies with little to no dialogue.
The critic Jonathan Rosenbaum once opined that Playtime, his favorite movie and an indisputable masterwork, had become a period piece because it dealt with something that had ceased to be important: public space. This was in the late 2000s, and what Rosenbaum was talking about was the internet. Today we know what the disappearance of public space actually looks like. We are living through a mass evacuation of all those places where one might brush shoulders with strangers or smell what someone else is eating for lunch. And Playtime, which is in many respects a symphonic comedy of mild annoyances and the awkwardness of modern convenience, now feels even more like an ode to the crowd.
There is in fact quite a bit of spoken dialogue in Playtime, though for the film’s singular director and star, Jacques Tati, it’s never more than fodder for a deftly orchestrated quadraphonic soundtrack. For a long time it was even common for the movie to be screened in prints with no subtitles, as they would otherwise cover parts of a carefully composed frame. (This also appears to have been Tati’s preference, as the dialogue is deliberately multilingual; the English parts were written by Art Buchwald.) The plot is purely circumstantial, taking us on a journey of ordinary perambulations from day to night and through a succession of places and crowds in an imaginary modernist Paris: an airport, an office building, an exhibition hall, a restaurant.
Tati originally intended for the film to be a farewell for his signature character, Monsieur Hulot, known for his pipe, hat, distinctive gait, and a leaned-forward, elbows-out posture that suggests bad eyesight. In this sense it is an anti-star vehicle, with a central thesis that humor is something that belongs to everyone. To that end, Tati undertook a notoriously elaborate production, filming Playtime over three years in 70mm (with another nine months for the soundtrack) on a humongous set that became known as “Tativille.” The result left him in debt, but it created a movie unlike any made before or since—a cumulative comedy in which foreign tourists, Hulot doppelgängers, and uniformed workers of every stripe roam a world of big gray walls, glass, and geometric lines.
Though Tati was first and foremost a master mime and clown, he avoided a lot of the techniques of silent comedy. The gags in Playtime are mostly of the kind that any one of us could perform; it’s through the film’s innovative mise-en-scène that the sight of a person walking down a hallway, the sound of squeaky furniture, or the blinking of neon signage becomes incredibly funny. In some way, the joke is on all of us for living in a modern world, though mean-spiritedness is anathema to the grand project of Playtime. A slapstick punchline as obvious as a woman in a fancy evening dress being accidentally splattered with muck by a shoveling street worker is not its style. Instead, what’s funny to Tati is the way the shoveler stops and waits for the woman to walk by.
This is the essence of the comedy of Playtime: It’s the stuff we do every day as we ride escalators, get on and off of buses, or walk on sticky floors. But there is no comic masterpiece that benefits less from a gag by gag breakdown. Despite the meticulousness of its construction, the movie’s loyalties are ultimately with improvisation, whether it’s in jazz music (which soundtracked all of the Hulot films, and gets a full sequence in Playtime) or in the rhythms of our day-to-day lives—the way we deal with ripped uniforms and broken doors. For a movie that pokes so much fun at the promises of technology and order and all the silly noises we make, Playtime is ultimately uplifting—because even at its grayest and most precisely computerized, the world is still full of us.
Availability: Playtime can be streamed on The Criterion Channel. It is available on Blu-ray and DVD as part of The Complete Jacques Tati box set, and for digital rental or purchase via Amazon and iTunes.