The Power Of Playtime

Noting the release of a new Jacques Tati box set from Criterion, Michael Wood recalls a standout scene from Playtime:

Playtime settles down into the masterpiece it finally is at a very specific moment: the satire vanishes, and you realise the work is not about the folly of advertising and conformity but about the way we enthusiastically build worlds we can’t live in – and live in them.

Hulot meets an old army friend on the street. The friend invites him into his brand-new flat for a drink, and we witness the whole thing from outside. The flat is on the ground floor and the living room has a vast picture window, as if domestic life were a department store display. Hulot greets the man’s wife and daughter, and takes his leave when they are all set to show him a home movie. The film we are watching is a silent one at this point because of the glass, or silent as far as its action is concerned: we can hear the buses and cars on the street. Then the camera moves slightly to the right, showing the next picture-window flat, different people, similar scene. After a while the camera lifts to show the flats on the next floor, and we now see four pretty much identical apartments (and scenes) at once. The effect is of a split screen, four separate shots combined. But the screen isn’t split, this is rectangular, quadruplicated city life. Why are the people so happy here? Why aren’t they screaming, as Philip Larkin might say. For good measure … one of the inhabitants of one of the flats turns out to be the man Hulot has been trying all day to see in his glassy office. Now he meets him on the street when the man walks his dog, and they have the conversation they have been failing to have.