Modernism IV

film 2 of 3


Draft Review by Dean Duncan May 8, 2015

Could well be called Waiting for Giffard, except that M. Giffard ends up doing just as much waiting for Hulot, & then they actually, miraculously meet after all; still, for all the undoubted gentleness, humanity & optimism that this film comedy opts & reaches for, Absurdity, alienation & disaffection are still at the doors & bursting through, as they’d really been from the start of Tati’s feature film career: …

In Jour de Féte Tati’s postman is the only one trying to introduce Marshall-ism to the idyllic French countryside, but it’s probably only the filmmaker’s insistent hand that prevents the rest of this community from seeing the light that’s so blindingly evident to everyone else—in real life it seemed, American efficiency, entrepeneurial & imperial impulse won the day, & the next two generations besides; Tati’s Les Vacances de M. Hulot just ignores the problems of modernity, while Mon Oncle is built on the opposition of the two incompatible spheres, which attain an integration that’s uneasy at best;

Here, in Playtime, the organic has finally been defeated & even outright replaced by the synthetic; the whole movie is devoted to what ends up being a futile search for the real, true Paris, which famously appears only briefly in two reflections, on two glass doors; the rest is bootless scurry, missed connections & material glut;

The message is dire, but the manner of it mitigates in very great part: …

The first half of Playtime is an awe-inspiring tour de force: its monumental cold chrome production design, the spaces so deep, the gags distributed so brilliantly, numerously, dizzyingly across & through the frame, the sensibility so quiet, genial and demanding; you can absolutely see how audiences & critics didn’t know what to do with it—the film is, quite simply, a folly, doomed to cry in the wilderness, at the same time that it stands as a pretty good example of what art’s for, and why commercial considerations never can explain much of what’s really important;

In the matter of technique, here’s Tati’s familiar approach to music, his stylized, hyperbolic sound effects, his elegant physical comedy (great pratfalls!: Giffard hits that glass, Hulot falls as we look through that picture window); the apartment-building-as-aquarium sequence is terrifying in its rendering of how antisceptic modern urban dwelling has gotten, yet it is still encouraging in that Tati’s masterful frame compositions give the illusion, & then insinuate the reality that people will interact anyway, & are still & always human together;

The restaurant sequence that dominates the film’s second half is also wonderfully conceived, thematically apt: after all this dire disconnection it is entropy—in the form of this disintegrating building—that actually defeats cold modernity; Hulot himself accidentally pulls down the last bit of alienating order, & the jazz band’s hard bop gives way to the American girl learning a French song (here’s the real Paris after all!) from the old native, & everyone ends up having a lovely time together;

There’s a virtuosic epilogue, which affirms the core connection even as the outer synthetic vestments remain almost exactly the same; can you feel it/do you buy it?

A last, small thing: Tati spoke for & the promotional campaign for the film promised a kind of democratization, in which the inaccessible hierarchies of commercial film were replaced by the acknowledgment & celebration of all of us; this was manifest in, audiences were frustrated by, the frequent obscuring of the Hulot character, & of his creator; take the floor, said Tati, while his fans wanted him to take & maintain the stage; still, now, this wonderful notion of democratic comedy spilling out into the streets & our lives generate in a strangely paradoxical way elitist desires for this genius to just take control & take over: he’s more reliably entertaining, more deeply amazing than we are; it’s finally like a graduate seminar with an amazing instructor teacher, where you appreciate the contributions of your colleagues, & wish they’d just keep it quiet & get out of the great man’s way …