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The Criterion Collection presents
Playtime (1967)

"How tourist."
- Restaurant patron

Review By: Jeff Ulmer  
Published: September 05, 2006

Stars: Jacques Tati, Barbara Dennek
Other Stars: Rita Maiden, France Rumilly, France Delahalle, Valérie Camille, Erika Dentzler, Nicole Ray, Yvette Ducreux, Nathalie Jam, Jacqueline Lecomte, Oliva Poli, Alice Field, Sophie Wennek, Evy Cavallaro, Laure Paillette, Colette Proust, Luce Bonifassy, Ketty France, Eliane Firmin-Dick, Billy Kearns, Tony Andal, Yves Barsacq, André Fouché, Georges Montant, Georges Faye, John Abbey, Reinhard Kolldehoff, Michel Francini, Grégoire Katz, Jack Gauthier, Henri Piccoli, Léon Doyen, François Viaur, Douglas Read, Bob Harley, Jacques Chauveau, Gilbert Reeb, Marc Monjou, Billy Bourbon
Director: Jacques Tati

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (Modern French architecture)
Run Time: 01h:24m:27s
Release Date: September 05, 2006
UPC: 715515020022
Genre: foreign


Style
Grade
Substance
Grade
Image Transfer
Grade
Audio Transfer
Grade
Extras
Grade
A AAA- B

DVD Review

While not the most prolific of French directors, producing only six features during his entire career, Jacques Tati ranks among the greatest the country has to offer. His second feature, M. Hulot's Holiday (1953), introduced his signature character, the loveably bumbling Monsieur Hulot, who innocently wreaks havoc at a quaint seaside resort. Its successor, Mon Oncle (1958), took the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, pitting Hulot against the increasingly modern world.

By the time Playtime (originally to be called Récreation) was put into development in 1959, Tati had grown tired of his character. As he had started to do in Mon Oncle, he wanted to tone down on any central character to create more of an overview of a group of people. In Playtime, M. Hulot makes an appearance, but aside from a few segments never really dominates the film. Instead, we get a collage of characters and situations that form this most ambitious followup, which ended up taking nearly a decade to materialize, and drove Tati into personal bankruptcy and cost him the rights to all his films not long after Playtime was released in 1967.

Tati's brilliance lies in his powers of observation. In contrast to M. Hulot's Holiday, or more relevantly, Mon Oncle, we see that the M. Hulot's universe has finished its transformation from the old world into the new with Playtime. Gone are the cobblestone streets, quaint neighborhoods and old buildings. In its place are the sterile structures of the modern world, laced with mechanics and modern conveniences.

The film opens at the airport in Paris, where a group of American tourists arrive, apparently as part of a European tour. This is our first introduction to the tile floors, partitions, and massive expanses of glass that will dominate the film—in fact, Tati built his own little city on the outskirts of Paris—dubbed Tativille—in order to shoot the picture. We spend the first ten minutes of the film observing the goings on at the airport, and immediately we are introduced to the director's exquisite sound design—the buzzing of transformers, the clicking of heels on tile, beeps, indistinguishable public address announcements and so forth are introduced in a somewhat exaggerated fashion, if only because we tend to tune these out in real life. M. Hulot (as a double) makes his first entrance as a background character before we move out onto the streets of modern Paris, where glass skyscrapers fill the skyline, and the remnants of the old world are only seen as reflections in windows or doors.

As our tourists head for their hotels, M. Hulot makes his way to one of the office towers, a maze of glass, concrete and plastic, where he apparently has an appointment. After negotiating with an intimidating piece of machinery, which turns out to be the intercom, the doorman ushers M. Hulot to take a seat, as the man he is to see makes his way down an extremely long corridor. He is then escorted into yet another waiting room, and after a formidable wait, the man he has come to see rushes off on some other urgent business, with Hulot trying to catch up, but ending up getting lost in the labyrinth of office cubicles and reflective glass. As with the rest of the film, things just don't seem to go as planned, misunderstandings are many, and the facade of the new world, quite literally, comes crumbling to ruin.

In one sense, Playtime could be seen as a modern take on the silent picture, where images alone tell the story, but this would take away from Tati's deliberate use of foley—presenting an inversion of what we perceive in the real world, with background and ambient noises elevated above conversation. As has been the case in the earlier films, dialogue is almost non existent, and what little there is but another sound effect in the film, serving little more than to set up the next sequence of visuals, leaving the audience to rely primarily on body language and gestures. Contrast between stark settings and others where the frame is filled with activity, with the focus diluted and often more than one activity being featured.

The styling is also more detached than the earlier films. There are no close ups, everything is seen from the perspective of a remote observer, with entire sequences being shot from across the street, or through the windows looking in on events unfolding, never really being in the center of the action. Even Hulot's readily identifiable character is diffused, as he and imposters are routinely mistaken for each other. The humor in Playtime is sublime, with Tati's exposition of the modern world, and our attempts to interface with and function within it. Confusion is a matter of course in the impersonal and artificial construct the citizens of this world endure.

The most expensive French production of its day, the staging was massive, including the construction of two office towers to shoot in, complete with its own working escalator. Shooting was plagued with disaster, taking a year to complete due to lack of funding and delays, which ended up costing Tati everything he owned to finish the film, a situation he wouldn't fully recover from for another decade. Although it was somewhat well received, its difference from its predecessors and the expectations for the film alienated its audience, and with the events that followed in France in May of 1968, the film became relegated to a thing of the past far too prematurely.

Due to severely degraded original 70mm elements Playtime underwent an extensive film restoration in 2002, but due to changing rights holders resulting from Tati's financial situation in the late 1970s, significant portions of the original 154 minute cut disappeared. To satisfy his business partners Tati continued editing after Playtime's release, cutting 15 minutes for the French version and trimming further for its eventual US release, which wasn't until 1973. Although nowhere near the original run time, this restored edition adds an extra couple of minutes missing from the previous Criterion release.

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A

 

Image Transfer

 One
Aspect Ratio1.85:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes
Anamorphicyes


Image Transfer Review: Originally shot on 70mm, this new restored transfer was made from a 35mm reduction. The original Criterion DVD was cropped on all sides, with this version showing considerably more of the frame. The image is notably different from its predecessor, more balanced and saturated. The opening credits still suffer from DVNR artifacts, but after that the presentation is a definite improvement in clarity and overall appearance. The brightness pulsing found on the original transfer is gone.

Image Transfer Grade: A

 

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0French/English/Germanyes


Audio Transfer Review: The use of sound is a critical element in Tati's work, and the availability of six channel magnetic was one of the deciding factors in shooting in 70mm. Theatrically, a five channel format was used to provide directionality across the forward field, and here we finally get a stereo representation (unlike Criterion's prior disc which used a mono soundtrack). The French/English/German soundtrack is well presented, with decent frequency coverage and a clean presentation. No distortion was noted, and Tati's exquisite foley work is an integral part of the viewing experience.

An alternate international soundtrack is also available.

Audio Transfer Grade: A-

 

Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 24 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
3 Documentaries
2 Featurette(s)
Packaging: Digipak
Picture Disc
2 Discs
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: RSDL

Extra Extras:
  1. Introduction by Terry Jones
  2. Select commentary by film historian Philip Kemp
  3. Audio interview
  4. Short film Cours du Soir
  5. Essay
Extras Review: This two-disc reissue includes a couple of features found on the previous edition, including director/writer/actor Terry Jones' introduction to the film (6m:11s), which I highly recommed saving until you've seen the film at least once, as he covers several key sequences which could be spoiled out of context.

We also get Tati's 1967 Cours du Soir (Night Classes), which features Tati in typical Hulot garb as an instructor, teaching the art of observation, which entails many examples of human behaviour including smoking, playing tennis, horseback riding, fishing and avoiding certain normal occurances in everyday life. This 27m:42s short also features a more familiar Tati soundtrack, with a musical number that repeats throughout the film. Compared with his other features, this was a bit of a surprise for the amount of dialogue involved. Tati also pays tribute to his earlier L'École des facteurs, found on Criterion's Mon Oncle disc.

New to this edition is a scene specific commentary track (46m:38s) by film historian Philip Kemp, who points out many of the details of the production while discussing Tati's approach to film making.

Au-delà de "Playtime" (6m:27s), narrated by film scholar Stéphane Goudet who explains many aspects of the production, contains behind-the-scenes footage demonstrating Tati's directorial style and interaction with his cast, as well as the assembly of the massive constructs that made up the set, and ultimately its destruction.

A biographical look at the director's life can be found in Tati Story (20m:38s). Illustrated with archival photos and scenes from his films, this documentary gives a chronological overview of Tati's upbringing and career.

Jacques Tati in Monsieur Hulot’s Work, (49m:26s) a 1976 episode of the BBC program Omnibus, features an interview with Tati by Gavin Millar, who return to the Hôtel de la Plage, the setting for M. Hulot's Holiday. Here, the two talk about the character and his evolution through Tati's films.

Playtime is the topic of discussion in this collection of audio interviews (16m:48s) as Tati addresses an audience following the debut U.S. screening of the film at the 1972 San Francisco International Film Festival. Among many other topics, he has some interesting comments regarding his distributors.

Script supervisor on three of Tati's films, Sylvette Baudrot is featured in a interview (12m:11s), discussing the shooting of Playtime from her perspective, and her observations on Tati.

A new essay on the film's production by Jonathan Rosenbaum is included on the discs trifold insert, offering more interesting insight into its creator and creation.

Extras Grade: B

 

Final Comments

Although a departure from his earlier works and bringing him to financial ruin, Jacques Tati's genius at exposing the folly of human behaviour and the modern world is fully realised in his masterwork, Playtime. Criterion's re-release brings a newly restored transfer and a fine selection of supplements that showcase and celebrate his crowning achievement, and the director's unique and brilliant talent. Very highly recommended.

 


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