From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Play Time is French director Jacques Tati's fourth major film, shot in 1964 through 1967 and released in 1967. Tati plays Monsieur Hulot, a comic character who appears in several of Tati's films. In Play Time, however, there are no real main characters and Hulot is often just a small part of the events on the screen. Play Time is notable for its enormous set, built specially for the film, and for Tati's trademark use of subtle, yet complex visual comedy supported by creative sound effects, with dialogue frequently reduced to the level of background noise, aided by a soundtrack by Francis Lemarque and James Campbell.
In Play Time, Tati's character, M. Hulot, and a group of American tourists lose themselves in a futuristic glass and steel Paris, where only human nature and a few hints of old Paris briefly breathe life into the city. New technologies, billed as conveniences, are represented as merely complicating life and an interference to natural human interaction.
Play Time is structured in six sequences linked by two characters who keep bumping into each other in the course of the story: Barbara, a young American tourist visiting Paris, and M. Hulot, who has a meeting with someone important. The sequences are as follows:
- The airport: a group of American tourists arrive at Orly and discover a futuristic Paris made of cold, impersonal glass and steel buildings.
- The offices: M. Hulot arrives for an important meeting but gets lost in a maze of offices and ends up in an exhibition.
- The exhibition of inventions: M. Hulot and the American tourists see new inventions including a silent door and a broom with headlights.
- The apartments with glass walls: as night falls, Mr. Hulot meets an old friend who invites him to his ultra-modern flat.
- The Royal Garden: having escaped his friend, Mr. Hulot finds himself at the inauguration of a new restaurant with the American tourists. However, the building work has hardly finished and there are various problems.
- The carousel of cars: in the midst of a car ballet in a traffic circle, the tourists' coach returns to the airport.
The film is famous for its enormous, specially constructed set and background stage, known as 'Tativille', which cost enormous sums to build and maintain. The set required 100 construction workers to build it, and its very own power plant to function. Storms, budget crises, and other disasters stretched the shooting schedule to three years. Budget overruns forced Tati to take out large loans and personal overdrafts to cover ever-increasing production costs.
As Play Time depended greatly on visual comedy and sound effects, Tati chose to shoot the film on the high-resolution 70mm film format, together with a complicated (for the day) stereophonic soundtrack.
On its original French release, Play Time was acclaimed by critics. However, it was commercially unsuccessful, failing to earn back a significant portion of its production costs. One reason may have been Tati's insistence that film be limited to those theaters equipped with 70-mm projectors and special stereo speakers (he refused to provide a 35-mm version for smaller theaters).
Results were the same upon the film's eventual release in the U.S. in 1973 (even though it had finally been converted to a 35mm format at the insistence of U.S. distributors and edited down to 103 minutes). Though Vincent Canby of the New York Times called Playtime "Tati's most brilliant film", it was no more a commercial success in the U.S. than in France. Debts incurred as a result of the film's cost overruns eventually forced Tati to file for bankruptcy.
Despite its disastrous financial failure, Play Time is regarded as a great achievement by many critics, who have noted its subtlety and complexity: it is not easily absorbed at one sitting. François Truffaut wrote that Play Time was "a film that comes from another planet, where they make films differently". British critic Gilbert Adair has noted that the film has to be viewed "several times, each from a different seat in the auditorium" in order to view the many small, tightly-choreographed sight gags by several different actors, sometimes displayed nearly simultaneously on the huge 70mm screen. Nor is the humor restricted to human behavior alone — a gag may revolve around an everyday object or phenomenon such as the mundane hum of a neon sign.