Architecture in a film can exemplify a story of our present reality that might otherwise go unrecorded, making commentary on the absurdities of our modern world. The film, Playtime (1967) by renowned French director, actor, and writer, Jacques Tati makes us more critical of the state of our modern planning and architecture. Tati is most well-known for his character Monsieur Hulot, who plays the central role in many of his movies. The films follow Hulot in many of his adventures and misadventures in the progressively modern France of the 1950s and 60s. Tati employs his unique and subtle style of comedy to chaff at what he considers the ridiculous qualities of modern western life.
Design of Tativille: The Film Set
The 1960s was a time of looking to the future and rejecting the past, both in France and abroad. This is reflected in the sets designed for the film with a steel-filled, glass, and high-tech world blooming in Paris’s suburbs. Tati created a fictitious, scaled-down city block, admiringly known as Tativille that he could maneuver to get the appropriate architectural effects. Unlike his earlier movies, Tati also decided that he wanted Playtime to be less about Hulot and more about, as he called it, “everyone”. This enabled Tati to make a broader examination of society as a whole and create a larger and lasting message about the condition of humanity in the modern world.
The “world” that Jacques Tati has constructed in Playtime is very specific; buildings are adorned with glass windows, clearly suggestive of the level of transparency that exists in a modernized world. The questions he raises and explores with this film involve our rapidly evolving society that has now become driven by consumerism.
Design of the City
All of this artifice conduces to the sense of a city designed for aesthetic power and incompatible with its human inhabitants. People are reduced to little atoms in an extensive labyrinth of cubicles, glass walls, box-shaped apartments, elevators, identikit walkways, and pavements. Piece by piece, the film shows them breaking out of the behaviors and patterns advocated by their environment, most strikingly in the extended “Royal Garden” sequence.
The grid of cubicles relays an abstruse space, rigidly ordered but strenuous to navigate due to its repetitive colors and lines. Tati’s Hulot can just be seen at the outer edge of the cubicles near the top left corner of the frame, toiling to locate the person he came to meet. We can see how the modernist design creates a maze of sameness in the space lacking character and personality, where it’s very easy to get lost. In another scene, Hulot waits for his meeting, and as his contact approaches from the distant depth of the composition the sound once again blocks out the distance between the characters. Hearing the approaching footsteps, Hulot rises to the meeting, but he has been deceived, and he has much longer to wait.The depth signs and cues given by the sounds direct the eye to relevant portions of the frame, keeping the spectator one step ahead of Hulot’s misunderstandings, simultaneously adding an experiential layer to the mundane office spaces.
Deceiving Materiality & Contrasting Sounds
The spaces of Playtime are malevolent to human beings as can be observed in the film production design that is full of hard, slippery surfaces. The discomforts experienced due to such materiality is accentuated by mordant, repetitive, or muddled noises. For example, chairs hiss and squeak, while intercoms and PA systems deliver monotonous or incoherent whirring. Communication is stifled, obscured, misdirected, or thwarted altogether as opposed to the linear architecture. The soundtracks contrast with the sleek modern architecture and makes this uncooperative environment, more pronounced by enhancing the incongruous noises of its objects. The ultra-modern designs are supposed to harmonize perfectly with each other – this Paris has been made over to comprise a unified aesthetic of graphite greys, brushed steel, and tarmac – but the sounds make certain things pop out to get noticed.
Matching these gags about sounds that standout and don’t behave as expected, are similar reactions to spaces in Playtime. Rooms, zones, and indoor/outdoor distinctions are excessively compartmentalized by glass or plastic panels, and many jokes revolve around failures to acknowledge those boundaries. For example, as seen below, in one of the scenes, we see a gentleman approaching the security guard, for a liter but fails to acknowledge the clear class partition standing in between him and the building.
Another example of the deceiving modernist design is the scene where there are two neighboring apartments with their glass fronts granting little privacy (we watch the scene unfold from the street, hearing snatches of conversation from passersby and traffic noises). Even though they are two separate apartments with a central partition, the arrangement makes them appear to be interacting when seen from outside.
Tati utilizes posters of some of the most iconic places in the world all featuring the same boring modern building to further his comment on the obscurity and congruence of urban modern architecture. Tati includes a motley of gags with glass windows and walls that fill the sets, playing with reflections in the glass, and in one scene, the audience is diverted to one of the very few appearances of recognizable Paris with the reflection of the Eiffel Tower in a glass door. In multiple scenes, Tati also utilizes the potentially elusive quality of glass where characters become confused because of the reflections they see in the glass.
The majority of the movie Playtime, lives in a monochromatic world of grays, whites, and blues, though in some scenes, he purposefully uses pops of bright colors to draw the audience’s attention. The Royal Garden Club is the most colorful set, which contrasts the desolate monotone world of the office buildings by instantly creating a warmer and more joyful atmosphere. Another interesting use of color is in the drug store scene where the entire store is clothed in an irksome shade of green that gnarls the appearance of the food that’s being sold.
Tati’s use of sound in Playtime is inspired by the silent film genre where most of the film is without dialogue and general background noise creates a constant city buzz. This is then contrasted with punctuations of sound for comedic effect. Playtime could have been a dystopian vision of a world whose modern irritations are exasperating, pesky headaches of wonky gadgets, and redundant maunder but instead, Tati presents the absurdity and suggests how changes in perspective can ease their power to confound. Tati’s work remains so cherished because of his inventive approach and comedic genius with his enduring commentary on modern society. His hilarious commentary still rings true today regardless of the fifty years since the movie.