Let's Take the Beige Car to the Grey Building

Who in their right mind would want to live in this hard, cold, grey world? Human beings, that’s who—they take to it like a duck to water in 1967's Playtime. Filmed on a massive budget that bankrupted director and star Jacques Tati, an entire world of plain grey buildings populated by people in grey and beige is presented to us—in fact largely constructed for the film at tremendous expense. In this hyper-sterile playground, Tati exercises his genius for creating a strange, absurd, natural ballet of human life.

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Like Chaplin with the Tramp, Tati was growing tired of his character, M. Hulot, by this point after many successful films as the character. Hulot is still the closest thing to a central protagonist in Playtime but the film’s real subject is the busy masses of humanity in which Hulot plays but one tiny part.

Tati is critical of this modern lifestyle but in an extraordinarily benevolent way. In a scene that presages the 21st century ease with which people cast aside privacy in favour of social media exposure, Tati shows apartments with completely transparent walls, allowing passers-by to view a man undressing after a long day. Not that any passer-by seems to particularly care, nor does the man.

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Only the viewer is left to ask why, why are people living like this? But we know perfectly well they—or we—do.

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Another almost main character is an American tourist named Barbara (Barbara Dennek) who, arriving in Paris, makes some mild effort to find actual local colour in the persistently grey box-scape. Yet she seems placidly content to view travel advertisements that amusingly boast of the exact same dull, grey buildings in Brazil and the U.S.

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In this steel tableau Tati places the irrepressible organism of collective humanity unquestioningly carrying on. A long sequence that forms a later part of the film involves a restaurant that’s forced to open in the middle of renovation. The staff absurdly endeavour to keep up their professional demeanour as tiles come off the floor, sticking to shoes, or wet paint from the chairs leads to the shapes of chairs quietly making their appearances on people’s coats and skin. When Hulot accidentally shatters one of the glass doors, the doorman can see no alternative but to hold the steel handle in place and mime opening and closing the door for guests.

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Ultimately, in spite of efforts to the contrary, this city is a living thing due to life’s unforeseen circumstances. Thank goodness. Playtime is available on The Criterion Channel.

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