His first three features made it clear that Jacques Tati was the pre-eminent European director-comedian of the sound era. As a performer, Tati has been compared to the great silent clowns Buster Keaton and Max Linder, although he’s basically an isolated eccentric. It might be more useful to consider Tati the director in the company of modernist control-freak auteurs Bresson and Antonioni, who didn’t make comedies but created their own worlds.
Tati’s signature comic character ambled into movies with Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday (1953), his second film. Tall, awkward, blank-faced Hulot is an endearingly clumsy everyman whose incompetence is preferable to the inhuman competence of the modern world. Tati’s fourth feature and boldest experiment, the visionary Playtime (1967) was nearly three years in production. Its big budget included the cost of building vast glass and steel sets that represented the director’s jaundiced view of modern Paris. The film flopped, and its failure put Tati into bankruptcy; he had no control over what became of it—Playtime was released in the U.S. in a number of mutilated versions. The Walter Reade is presenting a new 70mm print, and although some missing scenes could not be restored, this is as complete a version as we’re ever likely to see.
Playtime has the tiniest plot ever filmed in 70mm. Hulot wanders in and out of the action at random. After following a group of American tourists who have been herded through the antiseptic new quarters of Paris, the film climaxes in a brilliant, nearly hour-long sequence in which all the characters turn up at the opening of a poorly built posh restaurant that gradually falls apart. The destruction of this eyesore exerts a near magical effect on locals and tourists alike, who socialize until the wee hours. With Playtime‘s monumental decor and complex choreographed gags taking place simultaneously in a constantly mutating space, Tati explored the possibilities of 70mm as they had never been utilized before. It’s a film that will reward more than one viewing—and from different seats in the theater.
“Tativille” was kept standing for a while, and like the immense Babylon set from Griffith’s Intolerance that was visible from all over Los Angeles, it became a tourist attraction. Tati wanted the buildings preserved for use by young filmmakers, but as in a scene from one of his films, they were torn down to make room for a highway.