french film

Is PlayTime the Best Movie of All Time?

This is Best Movie of All Time, an eternal search for the greatest film ever. Read the full archives here.

The title of the film PlayTime is sometimes written as two words and sometimes written as one word with the standard capital letter, but it seems to be most correct to inner-cap the T and write it as PlayTime. Jacques Tati’s experimental 1967 masterpiece starts with the language games before you even press play. It asks you why the title is so odd and what it could mean. It will not answer this, so be prepared for that. The best answer I can give you is that “PlayTime” is not a word, but it does convey a kind of meaning. That’s the kind of answer Tati is most interested in and it’s what PlayTime is about, such as it can be said to be about anything.

There are hundreds of characters and a half-dozen settings. It’s all in a mashed up version of French and English that any viewer who speaks any of either language will understand, at least as much as they need to understand. By way of example, I’ll mention a German man who mistakenly believes that a character has gone through files they were not supposed to go through. The German yells at the Frenchman, but shifts between French and German to do so. When he speaks German, his speech is no longer subtitled. We’re not supposed to understand that part and it is implied that the recipient of this dressing down doesn’t, either. It doesn’t matter. The sooner you get on that wavelength, the more likely you are to find something to love in PlayTime.

The great critic Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote a ton about PlayTime and is one of the primary defenders of the film’s legacy. I think the most important point he makes is this one:

For viewers trained to follow stories that lead to narrative payoffs — morals, solutions, dramatic climaxes — one can easily understand how PlayTime, if viewed less interactively and creatively, might seem empty and uneventful rather than teeming with lively possibilities.

Rosenbaum is a genius and one of my favorite critics, but I think we need to unpack this point. PlayTime is a crazy movie with very little plot and a tremendous amount of work put into aesthetic. The sound was dubbed later to apply precise sound effects and muddled dialogue that gets across an idea of what’s happening but never really gives a full picture. Tati cared enough to have different leather chairs make different odd noises and he wanted individual footfalls to make individual noises. He built an entire set to approximate an airport and office complex and made, at the time, the most expensive French film ever made. He did not, necessarily, tell a story.

Rosenbaum separates viewers into buckets to prepare them for PlayTime, but the first group of viewers who are “trained to follow stories that lead to narrative payoffs” is, essentially, everyone. We watch film for a variety of reasons, but we watch stories because we want to know what happens next. PlayTime is the ultimate subversion of this expectation. You do not want to know what’s coming next when you watch PlayTime, you want to understand why you’re seeing what is happening now. It absolutely is “empty and uneventful.” A man tries to meet someone and instead is confused by modern Paris while a tour group sees modernity in action but does not see what we think of as the sights of traditional Paris. This is criminally reductive, but that is the literal viewing of PlayTime. If that’s all you take away then you won’t like it and you’ll wonder why this much effort went into saying this little.

The Criterion special features include an introduction from Terry Jones and a brief interview with Paul Feig. Jones talks about seeing it in Paris on release and then recounts funny moments of it in an uncontrollable way, as if he cannot help but tell a friend that “this one part” is very funny. It’s a testament to the lasting humor and the truly massive scale that Tati wanted to create that these two masters of slapstick and broad comedy really connected with PlayTime. It’s funny, but in a fairly subtle way a lot of the time. When a character gets on a bus and cannot find a pole to hold on to, he holds on to a lamp that another person is holding. When a man goes to light a cigarette for someone else, they both realize during a panned out shot that they are on either side of a huge piece of glass. You won’t scream with laughter, but you’ll smile a lot.

Tati wanted complete control to ensure these moments landed, which necessitated building the set from the ground up. During a scene in a bland office full of identical furniture, a character wanders into a trade show where people are selling the same chairs as the design of the future. They’re everywhere already. They’re impractical and clearly uncomfortable, which adds to the ridiculousness of marketing them at all, but the real joke is that they already are what everyone uses, as far as we can see, literally everywhere. Tati’s message isn’t as bitter as a lot of other movies about the perils of modernity, but there’s a strong implication that technology and the push towards a “better future” is not actually going that great.

PlayTime will test your patience at times. The shot I pulled out as an image is from the middle of PlayTime, where the main character, a famous bumbling character played by Tati in other films named Monsieur Hulot, runs into an old army buddy who insists he come in for a drink. We watch this scene along with several others as cubes on the screen. We hear the street, from our perspective they are inside and we only hear that distantly. We see tricks of perspective, as there are walls between these families but they appear to be watching each other then they look at walls we don’t see. You murder a joke by explaining it, but I want to go this deep to explain what makes PlayTime special. There are tons of shots like this that don’t necessarily offer greater commentary but are just neat to take in.

I think the first half is stronger than the second. Hulot wanders around confusing office structures and can’t figure out how to meet with a character he needs to meet. My favorite shot in the whole film finds Hulot facing cubicles and a receptionist facing forwards who rotates as Hulot turns a corner. He doesn’t see her move, which tricks him into thinking he’s turned a corner to end up exactly where he was originally. I love the identical designs and similar colors through this section and the monotony really makes a statement. The second half follows Hulot trying to navigate a restaurant’s nightmare opening night and it feels like an elevated scene that could be in a lot of other movies. It’s very funny and very crazy in a very French way, but it feels very long to me and runs out of steam.

Rosenbaum is right, of course, and this is a movie you need to watch a certain way. It’s a pretty big thing to say that this movie subverts the entire idea of narrative, but if you’re going to do that you’re going to need to have a lot of flash to get by. Tati famously said that the expense of PlayTime was justified because it would have cost just as much to hire a famous star to play the female lead. He was right about the cost, but PlayTime didn’t make a profit and it functionally bankrupted the director. It’s one of the ultimate “risky” movies and you have to think that, in some small part, it makes a lot of the lists of movies directors love because they want to validate that risk. We all hope if we take a big swing we’ll be rewarded, and history has validated Tati even if not everyone understood what it was all going for at the time.

Is it better than the last movie we looked at? Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets also doesn’t really “go” anywhere, but it has more to say about the world. It’s hard to imagine a smaller risk than “film a fake bar,” but there is some comparison to be made despite this major difference in design and intent. Both Tati and the Ross brothers built a custom world that is similar to the real one but just different enough to feel a little off. Both wanted to show you something you know, but in a space they could control entirely. PlayTime is a film for the ages and Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets is really just a social experiment. I have to take PlayTime even though I’m a big defender of the style on display in both films.

Is it the best movie of all time? No, I am sadly a viewer who really needs a story, and I am sticking with In the Mood for Love. I was really fascinated by the first 30 minutes of PlayTime and I grew less so as it progressed. I liked all of it, but it’s more accurate to say that I appreciate PlayTime than I like PlayTime. David Lynch was a big fan and you can see some of that in his choices. Lynch obviously creates a more horrific world than the mostly silly PlayTime world, but you can see the connection even in Twin Peaks as Dale Cooper wanders through a world he doesn’t understand but largely doesn’t question. I love Lynch, but it’s impossible not to feel that some of the style wanders so far away from narrative that it gets to be difficult to follow. That’s part of the fun, as it is with PlayTime, but sometimes you just want something that art like this isn’t designed to do.

You can watch PlayTime on The Criterion Channel (subscription required) or on Amazon Prime ($3.99 at the time of this writing). You can recommend a movie to me for this series through email at readingatrecess @ gmail.com or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.