City of Delights 

Tati's Playtime remains a joyous carnival of city life

Tati's Playtime remains a joyous carnival of city life

Playtime

Dir: Jacques Tati

NR, 126 min.

Showing Oct. 28-Nov. 2

at the Belcourt

If the movies are the best toy train set a kid ever had, as Orson Welles once said, Playtime may be the greatest toy railroad yard ever built. An impish, often wordless comedy of modernism run amok, Jacques Tati's 1967 film pulls off an almost impossible feat, maintaining magical lightness on an enormous scale. It reminds me of an erector set I had as a kid, one that came with snap-on plastic windows. I would peer through the exposed girders and dream of whole cities constructed of these see-through skyscrapers.

Tati actually built one. Playtime takes place in a gleaming, glass-case Paris moderne constructed to its maker's design, on a set so huge it functioned as a miniature city. As Kent Jones notes in the liner notes to Criterion's DVD edition, this "Tativille" had its own power plant and access roads and two glass-framed buildings, one with its own working escalator. At the time, Tati was a comic performer and filmmaker whose popularity rivaled Charlie Chaplin's. He essentially mortgaged his future on the movie—to get every giant window, endless hallway and congested street just so.

Typically, money smothers comedy faster than Ann Coulter kills an erection. Today, watching Playtime—which bankrupted Tati and curtailed his career—what's remarkable is how right the director was about the necessity of those details. Something about the exact positioning of a pane of glass, about a skyline's cartoon angles, about pointing all the cars in a parking lot one way, makes you laugh even when you can't figure out why.

The movie has no plot to speak of. The closest thing it has to a central character is Tati's version of the Little Tramp, his comic persona M. Hulot, a rumpled observer with hat, pipe and long coat who lopes past the world's absurdities in a stiff-legged gait, like a lock-kneed stork falling forward. And Hulot is not the focus here, as he was in Tati's international hit M. Hulot's Holiday. He's one among literally hundreds of characters, all bustling around a crystal palace of chrome, cubicles and sharp angles as anonymous as a suburban mall. The characters convene at a restaurant's ill-fated opening night. This tour de force of timed-release slapstick lasts for 50 eye-goggling minutes of bad service, collapsing fixtures and mounting chaos.

In place of a plot, there is only the city and the characters' interaction with it, staged in long takes that are choreographed as intricately as a toppling-domino Mona Lisa. Tati's sight gags place an absurdist frame around mundane civic activities and public space. Five men moving a plate-glass window become a chorus line of bow-legged dancers, thanks to the spectators humming below; an apartment building's glass façade turns into a bank of competing TV screens. But the absurdity was always there. No matter how hard people try to wall themselves off with some kind of chilly formal dignity, behind these shiny surfaces, their goofy, disruptive humanity finds a way to bust free.

That's why Playtime is among the movies' most charmed and elating portrayals of city life. Living in a city, we can't help but be reminded we're connected to a larger world that extends as far as we can see—something Tati evokes by treating the back, sides and edges of the frame as a playground where something always competes for our attention. Few comedies get funnier each time around; few movies so reward multiple viewings. Playtime was originally conceived as an interactive work to be projected so large that the audience would be engulfed in its mayhem. In its 35 mm form, it's still a transformative vision, one that casts public space in a joyous new light. In the marvelous conclusion, the city is revealed as a giant whirling carnival, hidden in plain sight, where a traffic roundabout becomes a merry-go-round and a tilting window turns a tourist bus into a rollercoaster. Then the movie sends us outside, onto our own midway. We find, to our delight, that the ride is just beginning.

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