Plot: What’s it about?
This film doesn’t follow a traditional narrative, it has a basic plot that moves forward, but there isn’t much depth in that narrative. We have the basic plot, but the elements outside that plot are what drives this film, not the narrative. There is immense depth to the film on the whole, but not so much in the basic story, so to do a synopsis in this case is a little difficult. Monsieur Hulot (Jacques Tati) has traveled to Paris in order to attend a business meeting with Mr. Lacs (John Abbey). Seems simple enough, just travel to the City of Lights, meet with Lacs, then conduct the business at hand. But as usual, things aren’t that simple for Hulot and soon after he arrives, he finds himself overwhelmed by the urban landscape. He winds up lost in crowds in a showroom, run off when thought to be a pest, then fate shines down on him. An old friend from his military days sweeps him off, only to have another military chum take him away to an important opening. In the midst of the disastrous opening, Hulot encounters an American woman (Barbara Denneck), who catches his attention. But can Hulot connect with the woman, given the chaos and labyrinth like landscape around him?
This is the second time around for Jacques Tati’s creative and often brilliant Playtime, which Criterion has now graced with a deluxe two disc treatment. I’d venture most film buffs have seen this film or at least one of Tati’s films centered on the Hulot character, but if not, that is a shame. Playtime is the best of the lot and plays like a silent film in most instances, with minimal dialogue. While it is kind of unusual, it is highly effective and allows the characters and situations to speak for themselves. The approach does require us to be more observant however, as we’re not spoon fed the material. Especially since Tati makes full use of the widescreen format, filling the screen with multiple jokes and situations at a time. No visual space is wasted here and what seems routine is often not, but part of a chain of motion that leads to a humorous result. All the glass makes for a unique, very futuristic feel, but remains grounded. This is not the Paris we’re used to, but it is a well crafted and immersive atmosphere, which is what matters. Tati’s performance is superb as always and is quite memorable, while his costars also offer more fine efforts. I was thrilled to be able to watch an inventive, unique picture like this, as these days comedies all seem to come off the same production line. But Playtime is a fresh and one of a kind experience, one that earns a very high recommendation.
Video: How does it look?
Playtime is presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. This is a brand new transfer and it shows, putting even Criterion’s previous restoration to shame. The main improvement is in the colors, which were washed out and dull, but now have vibrant presence. The hues are so much richer and brighter, it actually feels like a new movie in some sequences. The greens are full of life now, instead of being drab and almost grey, but all the spectrum benefits from this new presentation. The contrast is also terrific, with deep black levels that never obscure detail in the least. Speaking of detail, this new transfer offers more depth within the image, so small details are clearer and that is fantastic news. I think Criterion deserves a lot of credit for this new transfer, this is simply flawless and as good as Playtime can look on DVD.
Audio: How does it sound?
The original French soundtrack has been preserved here and while there isn’t much dialogue, the audio is still impressive. The movie is loaded with sound effects, often used for comedic impact or atmosphere, so this soundtrack needed to be solid. The audio comes through in perfect form here, aside from some minor source issues that never hinder the experience. All of the sounds of the city come across in fine form, from traffic to crowds to silence. In short, a more than sufficient soundtrack that never falters. This release also includes an “international” soundtrack, as well as optional English subtitles.
Supplements: What are the extras?
The extras from the previous release, Terry Jones’ introduction and the Cours du Soir short film are both ported over, but there’s also some new stuff to browse. Phillip Kemp provides audio comments, but only on select scenes, though what time he does spend is worth a listen. You can also check out a short piece on Tati, as well as a brief look inside the production in a featurette titled Au-dela de Playtime. This release also includes an Omnibus program about Tati’s character Hulot, a video interview with script supervisor Sylvette Baudrot, and a rare audio interview with Tati, conducted at the film’s U.S. premiere.