Playtime is a film about alienation that simultaneously alienates its audience quite often – although we do, occasionally, focus in on the aimless wanderings of Mr. Hulot (played by director Jacques Tati), there is no plot. Although the label is reductive, it often feels like Brave New World by way of The Pink Panther – hilarious visual gags brilliantly jab at the banality and absurdity of modern life. It works consistently as a spoof of humanity – tourists gleefully visit grayscale shopping centers and high-tech restaurants while the Eiffel Tower and other monuments are neglected, their ghosts reflected back at the audience in a perfectly polished glass door. Playtime seems set in a world in which these things no longer exist – modern architecture dwarfs its characters, and various visual gags poke humorously at how “Paris” could really be any city, any where (billboards for Hawaii and several other tourist hotspots all have the same gray building standing tall in the center).
It sounds bleak, but it really isn’t. Playtime is a wonderful experience. Although its examinations of disconnect in the modern world (watch as a man comes up to ask another for a cigarette light, only to realize there is a massive window pane separating them) and emphasis on extraneous noise over traditional dialogue may alienate some viewers, I found it mezmerizing. Shot in 70mm, there are almost no close-ups. Visual humor lurks in every corner of every frame, and I’d wager someone could watch this film once a month for life and always catch something new each time. The sterile, conformist, modern architecture is a marvel to behold – the production design of Playtime nearly steals every scene – it is undoubtedly a visual masterpiece.
Even more importantly, it is flat out funny, and far more than a simple spoof of contemporary life. What truly sets Playtime apart is Tati’s brilliant resolve to push past mere satire, not only offering constant, brilliant humor, but also a hope and faith in humanity. The film’s biggest set piece, taking place at a fancy, high-tech-and-homogenous restaurant, provides a perfect example. For well over an hour characters have wandered and shopped wearing various shades of gray, coming to this restaurant for a night of bland “fun.” Things begin to, literally, fall apart in the restaurant, its sterile facade crumbles down, and everyone starts having more fun. New guests arrive in more colorful clothing, and slowly the film’s color palette grows. Playtime is surely an effective spoof, but it is also champion of the individual.