Wednesday, August 19, 2009
God bless Criterion for reissuing Playtime on Blu-ray. This visual Where's Waldo? for movie watchers depends on the clarity that only Blu can offer, due to French director Jacques Tati's decision to shoot in 70mm and avoid anything but wide-angle shots. The third in the series of films starring Monsieur Hulot, a forerunner of the far inferior but better known Mr. Bean (Rowan Atkinson), starts to minimize the character's footprint on the story, allowing other characters to initiate the gags in a virtual cityscape constructed by the production solely for use in the film. For director Tati (who also plays Hulot), Playtime is also a natural progression from his previous movies in that they all have a preoccupation with the effect of encroaching modernity on a romanticized past. This isn't immediately apparent in his earlier films, but even in L'ecole des facteurs (1947), there is the implied pressure of speed on the country postman Tati plays due to the conceptual invasion of air mail into his territory. By the time Hulot is introduced, as an agent of chaos in Les vacances de Monsieur Hulot (1953), the idea of technology disturbing the serenity of nature (in this case, a secluded beach) is brought closer to the foreground. In the next Hulot film, the charming Mon Oncle (1958), the incongruity between the modern Parisian suburbs and the quaint Old World Paris is the basis of the central plot, where by the end of the film one is a spectator to the demolishment of Hulot's enchanting neighborhood. In Playtime, the complete takeover of any recognizable Paris has already occurred. As the near plotless movie begins, a group of American tourists are by turns impressed with and disappointed by the modernization of Paris. All that's left is one little old flower lady to evoke the Paris of postcards, as even a famous landmark like the Eiffel Tower is reduced to a cameo in a reflection on a building's glass door. This time, even the comical Hulot is being crowded out to the sidelines, spending most of the film looking for his new employer in a maze of architecture that constitutes his new workplace. Tati utilized the film's scope and depth of field to pack each shot with so many visual gags (his films have very little dialogue) that it is impossible to catch them in one viewing. The Blu-ray enhances the possibility of being able to appreciate it fully in the best way one can short of seeing it the way Tati originally intended. And though this is a reissue from Criterion,
it is not simply a port-over from the original disc (Update: My mistake... apparently it IS a port-over from a disc Criterion reissued in 2006; I was comparing the Blu-ray to my copy of Criterion's 2001 DVD). The film has been restored, and there are considerably more special features that go into some depth about how Tati, an affable comic but a despotic director, gambled his fortune on the making of this unusual film. These include a behind-the-scenes documentary called Au-delà de "Playtime," a rare BBC interview with Jacques Tati near the end of his life, an essay by film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum (who once worked as a script consultant for Tati), and more.
Ultimately, Playtime failed upon its release because it was ahead of its time, forever relegating Tati to the category of "mad genius" for overreaching. But Criterion's new Blu-ray is a treasure to modern film buffs who are ripe for a reassessment of this visual oddity.