“I shall tell you a great secret, my friend. Do not wait for the last judgment, it takes place every day.”
– Albert Camus
Monsieur Hulot, in hat, pipe and half-mast trousers, arrives in a post-modern Paris, a glistening sheen of high-rise buildings, metallic steel warrens and metronomic pulses. He is not out of place, truly. Your eyes must search for him amidst the human bustle. He is constantly mistaken for other similar characters. He wanders, emerging and vanishing, about a city become unrecognizable and inhuman, baffled as an inquisitive giraffe, seemingly without purpose. Everybody else appears comfortably ensnared in patterns and rhythms of behaviour that are recognizable enough to be worrying; we see ourselves, and we understand.
Playtime can be experienced, as life, in different and varied ways. It exists in its own intricately contrived universe of choreography, and yet it never feels false, or designed. It is Tati’s grand attempt to enable us to see: to understand the possibilities and playfulness of a world that often appears so sterile, uninspiring, lifeless. Humans interact with each other in strange and beautiful ways, and ludicrous technologies enhance, rather than impede, tiny acts of kindness and humour. To call Playtime a comedy is an act of severe reduction. It is pure observation, a treatise for emotional coexistence, even in a world where alienation is written into the fabric of its own construction.
The central moment is also the greatest joke: a restaurant unfinished at the time of opening, a product of the incessant pursuit of ‘newness’, of ‘the next thing’. Guests arrive, lights flicker, waiters hide tools used only moments before to hammer trembling foundations. Nobody knows how the place is supposed to function. Waiters become increasingly dishevelled. Guests arrive, more and more; too many. The band strikes up an apocalyptic rhythm. Nobody receives their food. The upholstery begins to collapse. Drink flows and people grow free and alive. We begin to see how the end of the world could become one enormous party, a ritualistic celebration of the transcendence over the mundanity and obsolescence of a civilisation built around functions, rather than its inhabitants. Hulot appears, once more. He meets a young American woman, who seeks the ‘real’ Paris, but only glimpses it in reflections.
And everybody emerges back out onto morning streets, having experienced some oracular awakening, and into the world’s most beautiful traffic jam. Hulot becomes lost amidst the scramble towards nothing, once again, and we end where we began: with the sky, endless and eternal.