“Playtime”: The lost modernist masterpiece

Jacques Tati, Playtime

Jacques Tati, Playtime

Playtime (1967)

By Jacques Tati

When it was made in 1967, Jacques Tati’s Playtime was the most expensive French film in history. It features giant sets, hundreds of extras, and was shot in expensive 70mm. Despite all the money that went into the making of Playtime, the movie has no central plot. It has little to now dialogue, even its hero is gone for a third of the movie.

Yet Playtime is a movie you cannot take your eyes off of.

The first 30 minutes concerns about a man who tries to find his way in a high-tech, ultra modernist office building. Dialogue is reduced to mere background noise, and the only things we have to reply on are what is shown visually, through movement and body language. And during that time, it’s hard to take your eyes off of what is going on.

A big reason for that are the film’s impressive sets, but also Tati’s insistence of filming Playtime in an “observational” style, usually in a medium or wide shot, where we watch the action play out in long takes. There are no closeups and inserts, there are no ways of getting us close to the characters — we are only observers. The movie doesn’t tell us what to feel or who to identify with.

Tati wanted to film in color, but have the look of black and white. To achieve this, almost everything in the movie is either grey, black, or dark blue.

A sterile and cold modernist world

Playtime had a budget of 17 million Francs, making it at the time the most expensive French film of all time. Most of this money was spent on constructing a gigantic set that included several city blocks, an airport terminal, and a multi-story office building.

One of the most striking things about the visuals of Playtime is the movie’s use of color (or lack there of) and an ultra-clean set design. The office building that the main character, Mr. Hulot (played by Tati himself, as his alter ego), finds himself in for the first part of the film represents the quintessential modernist office building that flourished at the time (and to this date). Every surface is clean and sterile, glass dominates everywhere, and there is no sign of life — no plants, no running water, even the art on the walls seems cold and distanced.

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Despite its clean design, glass facades, and modern technology, Mr. Hulot somehow still manages to find himself lost in the building, due to the bureaucracy. In effect, Mr. Hulot is a human arriving in the world of robots. While Mr. Hulot walks through the office building as a person would — he’s interested in the place, he’s curious, he’s nervous — the employees there appear to all work with a sense of robotic efficiency, their humanity completely removed from their actions and attitudes. In some scenes, the employees walk in perfect straight lines, and when they turn, they stop and turn in perfect 90 degree angles.

There is little to no texture in Playtime (unlike, for example, Blade Runner) — all surfaces are clean and sterile. Everything is in order, controlled by a layer of technology and bureaucracy. When Mr. Hulot arrives at the office building in the beginning, he is led from one sterile room to the next, filled with modernist furniture and high-tech gadgets.

Playime's ultra-clean design reflects the cold and impersonal world the main character finds himself in

Playime’s ultra-clean design reflects the cold and impersonal world the main character finds himself in

Playtime was the first time the world ever saw people working in cubicles

Playtime didn’t just foresee the onslaught of minimalist modernist design that would take over in the next ten years (and even today), the movie also made a big contribution to how personal work spaces are arranged in a typical office building. The frame below shows the “cubicles” that Tati designed for the film — this was the very first time people were seen working in such a space. It would take another few decades before the cubicle became the standard working space in the western world.

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Color that looks black and white

Playtime was filmed in full color, yet somehow appears to be black and white. That’s by design — Tati wanted to film in color, but to look as if it was black and white. The few times color is used, it naturally pops out and grabs our attention.

Every part of the set was designed with three primary colors: grey, black, and dark blue. All costumes were designed mainly using those three colors. The cars and the streets were designed in the same way. For example, the image below shows a street scene where everything is monochrome — except the traffic light which retains its red/yellow/green. And even those were muted.

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Tati built a giant set that included an entire city block, with all aspects designed to fit the film’s unusual color scheme.

The few times we do see any colors, such as the yellow flowers at a street vendor, the color stands out, as expected. Throughout the film, color is generally given to objects that are alive, such as flowers. The humans on the other hand, are just as grey and cold as the world around them.

Colors caption

Throughout the film, color is generally given to objects that are alive, such as flowers. The humans on the other hand, are just as grey and cold as the world around them.

We also get a peek into the lives of the people that inhabit this strange world. In one scene, Mr. Hulot bumps into an old Army friend and is invited into his home. The friend is eager to show off his home and his latest gadgets, while Mr. Hulot looks awkward confused. And just like the office building and the work spaces, the homes are constructed of clean interiors and glass facades.

The design of people's homes is once again dominated by glass.

The design of people’s homes is once again dominated by glass.

Too big to fail

While critics raved about Playtime at the time, the movie didn’t fare well at the box office. A big part of this was Tati’s own fault: he insisted on screening the film in 70mm (the format it was shot in), but only a few theaters actually projected 70mm movies at the time. Tati refused to screen any 35mm copies, which ultimately meant that there was no way to earn back the tremendous amount of money he spent making the film.

Tati spend 3 years filming Playhouse, and another year editing it. He spent all of his previous earnings, his savings, and ended up mortgaging his own home in order to pay for Playtime. The film forced Tati to file or bankruptcy, and he never recovered financially.

Playtime (1967) is available on the Criterion Collection (DVD and Blu-ray), and on various streaming services.

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