For Jacques Tati, diegetic sound is about as useful as headlights on a broom. He’d rather not illuminate anything with such a crude tool. Playtime, his masterpiece, is a work of brow-furrowing complexity in its design and structure, but a model of narrative clarity.
Amid the Babel of un-synched language spouted by its multiple characters, Tati tells us a story of a man, M Hulot, trying to negotiate a city, Paris, that doesn’t exist. Only Hulot (Tati, of course), and an American tourist, Barbara (Barbara Dennek) seem to notice that the steel and glass skyscrapers of the soaring sixties have hidden the real city, obscuring its landmarks and dividing its citizens. Tati goes to a business meeting, is diverted to a furniture show, meets an old friend who invites him home for a drink, attends the opening of a restaurant, meets a girl and loses her, all in the space of 24-odd hours.
Each twist in Hulot’s meander is a prompted by a mistake or misapprehension. His attempt to refuse to enter the restaurant shatters the door and he stumbles inside unwillingly. If I tried to explain to you why a German door salesman then ushers him further into the dining room I would expend many, many words to explain a labyrinthine incident earlier in the film that is played out in at least three languages, none of which needed subtitles at all.
Trust me, it was a wonderful moment. I felt that door salesman’s anger, his hostility, his sarcasm, his deep shame and his ingratiating warmth so deeply, because they were so strongly expressed, not because I translated “Dumbkopf!” in my head. The only skills you need to understand this film are patience and observation, which transparently makes my German GCSE barely worth the paper it is written on.
Tati makes you concentrate, for sure, but he will make you giggle too. The laughs, when they come, are quick, low gasps – just like the way a pleather office chair sighs and belches when you settle on it. There are too many gags to take in on one viewing, and far, far too many to mention here. But I would like to single out the moment when Hulot and a businessman attempt to communicate to each other’s reflections in the office block, Barabra’s determination to take a photograph of a flower-seller, or the sadly uneaten turbot royale in the restaurant. The final sequence, in which Paris becomes a fairground, is as beautiful and sad as it is hilarious: a series of gleeful visual jokes that are only briefly visible, as poignant as a glimpse of the Sacre Coeur reflected in a swinging shop door.
Buster Keaton once said that Tati had carried on the tradition of silent comedy into the sound era. It’s true, and it’s obvious that Tati has learned some of his craft from films gone by, but I’m not sure we need to talk about him “owing a debt”, as they say, to silent cinema. He was a genius, and his innate understanding of how to tell a story, build a character, through pictures was part of his unique artistry. Rather than being a homage merchant, I think that Tati shows us what his silent idols would have done with sound. And it remains true that watching Playtime, which you can do again soon on the big screen as it is released next week, is a most invigorating way to flex your silent movie muscles.
Playtime is released theatrically by Park Circus on 7 November