This year, the Sight and Sound poll, the most respected poll of critics in the world, held once every ten years, will be conducted once again. Most eyes are on where Citizen Kane will fall this round, having dipped below the top spot after the last poll in 2012, for the first time in decades. This is as good a reason as any to revisit the Sight and Sound list, which has not a single film without merit on it. Most are quite academic, thoughtful and typically sobering, but look long enough and you’ll begin to spot films that seem outwardly simple. At number 37 is Playtime, a French comedy by the great master Jacques Tati, which though clearly a remarkable achievement in staging, production design, and diverting attention through a sort of visual ballet of simultaneous on-screen events, could be mistaken for being bereft of any traditionally accepted conventions of scriptwriting.
Playtime is set in a futuristic Paris, which has succumbed to all things consumerist, modernist and technical. The (extremely loose) plot revolves around a young American tourist, and the beloved icon of French comedy Monsieur Hulot, both of whom sort of walk about, taking in the gray surroundings with quiet consternation. Hulot in particular wanders from room to room, apparently lost, getting zipped up in elevators, mistaken for repairmen, made to watch T.V., etc. Though there is an appreciable comment being made on the rigidity of overly slick modern life, this is a film which seemingly relies on gesture and setting, and not really on its script (all dialogue is incidental, and often muffled). Surely, watching Playtime, the screenplay seems to have only been a means to an end, a list of gags centered around the immaculate cityscape sets being constructed (Tativille, as they were called long before bankrupting their creator) and the general theme of “restriction through alienating chic”.
That is true of much of the set-up, as we see all signs of the Paris we know encroached upon by gray buildings, glass windows, plastic cubicles, and constant traffic. We only see the Eiffel tower once or twice, reflected in a glass door as it swings open for a moment. Having played enough with these ideas, the film comes to its longest sequence; the development which takes an idea, and makes it a story. Having introduced its theme, the film moves to resolve it.
We arrive at a fine dining restaurant on opening night, a large curving arrow on its portico flashing neon light guiding us inside. The construction workers have not finished working and are hurried into the kitchen as guests begin to arrive, passing their coats to the coat checker, who has not gotten her own coat on yet. The workers continue measuring and adjusting in the kitchen, where the gap left to pass food to the wait-staff is too small for most of the dishes. As such, only a long, thin tray carrying fish can squeeze through, arriving at a table to be partially seasoned in front of guests, before a waiter must dash off to solve another problem.
As the band arrives late, staff begin replacing their damaged uniforms with items borrowed from a single waiter, made to stand outside, until he’s a complete suit and tie of tears, stains, burns and wrinkles. Other waiters continually re-season the fish before getting distracted, for instance by stepping on a poorly glued floor tile and carrying it off.
The elegant chairs made to resemble the restaurant’s logo begin to brand guests’ backs. The heat isn’t working, so some decorations and dishes begin to melt. The drunken clientele begin to find sitting in the off-balance chairs a struggle, and keeping more drunks from walking in is a loosing battle, since the glass front door shattered earlier, and the doorman has begun miming its presence to continue claiming tips.
Besides, once the drunks are let out, they spot the neon arrow above, which guides them right back in again. Eventually, a section of the roof caves in, and dangles like a funky beaded curtain cornering off a portion of the restaurant, which an eccentric American declares a VIP section available only to branded diners.
The evening is an utter disaster, but as everything continues falling apart it becomes clear; the more things go wrong, the better a time the guests have. They begin to dance, talk loudly, cut loose. As the machinations of their civilized setting come undone, their inhibitions fade away, and they find themselves able to enjoy the evening, so much so that we only leave at dawn, and a semblance of color has introduced itself to the world outside. Human nature is indomitable, and as much as culture presses forward in homogenizing all spaces, experiences and people into faithful consumers, drudges and line-toe-ers, what won’t change is us.
Tati had a particular and peculiar genius, a delicate bemusement that cannot be taught, and likely cannot be replicated. What you can learn from the writing of Playtime is that, even when a script is reduced to its most base functions, if you’re going to produce a worthwhile experience, you must have a theme, and the way in which the story interacts with that theme must evolve, to suggest an arc. The progression of the story’s theme will always be required to take the viewer on a journey, even if you end up where you started, or else you’ve got a dud on your hands.