Architectural 'Playtime' comes to the Music Box Theatre

February 22, 2013

One of the many treasures of the Music Box Theatre's 70mm movie festival: Jacques Tati's Playtime from 1967.

Playtime is a personal favorite, because one doesn't often see architecture and "place" played for laughs. It's an infinitely fascinating French film with endless and ingenious sight-gags, set-ups and visual puns--often playing out simultaneously at various spots on the screen--involving Tati's character, the befuddled Mr. Hulot in an increasingly modern Paris.

Indeed, Paris is so gray, glassy and architecturally modern, Hulot and the characters can hardly function within it. Glass-walled lobbies, low-slung leather furniture all become problems. And then there is a magnificent, 45-minute scene in which a modern restaurant slowly goes haywire on its opening night.

Beneath the laughs, Playtime is asking real questions about what architectural modernism was doing to authentic and individualistic places. One inspired gag among many: Tourists anxious to see "real" Paris are greeted instead by new buildings--while the audience catches a glimpse of the Eiffel Tower reflected for a moment in an opening glass door.

I like the above clip in which tourists pass a poster depicting a London building only to see the exact building right there in Paris.

Tati's France is architectural satire. Most of what you'll see in the movie are very elaborate sets and roads built for the film. They look quite authentic and serve Tati's point well, though. It took him three years to film the production and it bankrupted him for a long spell. Playtime was the last of five Tati films with the Hulot character. Hulot finds himself in modern Postwar French suburbia in the excellent Mon Oncle from 1958.

Showtime for Playtime begins at 6:30pm tonight. Tickets are $9.25 and a festival pass is $70.00.