This is an entry in "The Big Ones," a series covering 32 classic films for the first time on The Dancing Image. There are spoilers.
When we're kids, the potential for adventure and excitement seems to be everywhere. I don't think it's merely a matter of applying "imagination" - yes, the aisle in the grocery store could be an alley full of sinister gangsters or a canyon down which one must flee pursuers - but also a matter of perception. Reality, including manmade environments which serve a mundane function, is seen with fresher eyes; the novelty has not quite worn off sights either natural or fabricated. Hell, sometimes we still feel that excitement, after experiencing a great work, creating something ourselves, winning a game, falling in love or maybe just waking up on the right side of the bed. Whether Jacques Tati felt this way all the time I don't know, but he certainly applied this vision to his films, particularly the appropriately-named Playtime.
One of my favorite moments in the movie occurs when Tati's humorously heroic M. Hulot wanders into an office building, ascending in an elevator and then descending via an escalator. From the second floor he looks down into the cubicles and as we look with him, we see a series of little worlds, simultaneously sequestered yet connected. The trick is repeated later when two different households watch television on opposite sides of the same wall; the camera slides dead-center and suddenly we can't see the wall at all - it's as if the two families are regarding one another. Here and elsewhere, Tati's playful eyes redraw the boundaries of the everyday. The effects are achieved without visual additions or sleights of hand; we simply look at things from a certain stance, and the events unfold at a certain pace and "temperature" that transforms the familiar into the exotic.
That term, "temperature," may be the key - although the audacity of the sets and the orchestration of the action are clear enough, the exact way, the alchemy, by which Tati establishes his tone is extremely elusive. It's just in the air, as if he set a barometer to the perfect cool in which we are charmed by what we see without being either overwhelmed or bored. It isn't that the film is enthralling, exactly - my mind wanders at times - as that it avoids tedium through grace. We may tune out here or there but it's always ready for us when we tune back in: it reminds me of an art installation (or perhaps what more art installations should be) in that it unfolds at its own tempo, not forcing itself on us nor standing aloof. The film unfolds like a moving painting or perhaps a piece of performance art, existing in time, yes, but not constrained by it.
There are ideas sprinkled throughout (the young tourist lady who's so eager to "see" Paris that she can't see it, the contrast with Hulot who - often without trying - always notices the eccentric details, the way technical incompetence shatters social barriers) and a definite theme - a bemused play with modernity (as an aesthetic and an everyday sensibility) which teases out both its shortcomings and its inadvertent charms. However, the film is mostly content to float along in the artfully created moment, with a great deal of work going into mocking the notion of anything "working" at all. Most of the gags are all set-up, and if you wait for the punchline you'll be disappointed; but the movie doesn't key you up for any payoff (of which there are, admittedly, a few - my favorite being the drunk who keeps slipping off the stool which is eventually turned upside down, with him placed inside the legs for safekeeping). Instead, you enjoy the humor of any given gesture or expression in and of itself.
A good example of this is the waiter who keeps swapping garments with his co-workers - when a jacket is torn, he puts it in and gives his own good coat to the victim, a tie landing in soup is swapped for his own, and so forth. Eventually he stands outside looking like a bum, seat of his pants torn, shoe flapping, eyes downcast and discouraged. Yet no one mistakes him for a tramp or sees him outside and says, "Oh, let's not go in there, look at the help!" His appearance is its own joke, and no further elaboration is needed. It's one more piece of the overall texture in a sequence which could stand as its own short film. In the end, comparisons to other films and even other forms fall short in capturing the spirit of Playtime - the best comparison one could make is simply to the rhythm and idiosyncrasy of a city square or subway train, however Tati exaggerates. It is reality as seen through the eyes of an excited child, or a befuddled but bemused old man with a rumpled hat and an underused umbrella - he's too busy letting the world bombard him with its surprises to ever put up a shield.