Play Time (1967): M. Hulot, an Absurdly Prescient Modern Man

Playtime PosterWritten by Jacques Tati with Arch Buchwald and Jacques Lagrange

Directed by Jacques Tati

Starring Jacques Tati and Barbara Dennek

Jacques Tati‘s Play Time is composed of an ensemble cast if ever there was one. To call anyone in this film, other than Tati’s iconic Mr. Hulot, a main character would be erroneous. M. Hulot himself is absent from the frame for extended periods of the film, no doubt mired somewhere off-screen in a maze of stainless steel tape. Play Time is Kafka or Weber invested with a sense of humour about the myriad absurdities of modern living.

Play Time Opening Shots

Tati begins his film with a symphonic aural cue and the shining edifice of a stainless steel and glass building foregrounded against a sunshine-filled cobalt blue and white clouded sky. Following this the audience is given a shot of two nuns walking behind another pane of glass. Tati immediately signals that his film will be concerned with (satirizing) the religious elevation of modern life and living. The nuns walk through an airport and the viewer is introduced to Tati’s strategy of employing a deep and unprescriptive focus for his film’s scenarios; Tati directs the action of his film such that there are, at any given moment, several points of activity on the screen, all of which are hilarious and interesting. While some of these points of focus may be foregrounded against the other, Tati gives them all room and leaves it to the viewer to decide where their attention will fall on the screen. A group of female American tourists arrive at the airport and are herded through security and to their hotels. The friend with whom I watched the movie stated that she felt like the film made her one of these tourists: under a barrage of constant stimuli, her attention being vied for in every part of the screen, eyes darting around in an attempt to take in all the sights presented.

Transparent BoundariesHaving oriented the viewer and gestured toward the way the film to be approached – openly, from any perspective and with any focus – Tati introduces his Mr. Hulot character who is attempting to meet a man in a hyper-modern office comprised of glass walls and stainless steel, everything clear or grey and shining. The film levels many hilarious blows to the alienating and contradictory ways that modern living – with business, technology, and bureaucracy – undoes itself, but to my mind none is as prescient and valuable to today’s viewer as his depiction of the office building, first and foremost, with its labyrinth of glass walls. Tati gestures, in an eerie manner, toward the way that the progress of modern living obfuscates the divisions between the private and the public spheres, between the business world and the social world and the private world; all living becomes housed in transparent quarters. Having no conception of the advent of the digital revolution or the internet, it seems that Tati was still able to ascertain that the world was moving toward a place of elusive boundaries and the inter-penetration of these once-disparate spheres of living.

Everyone Identically UniqueTati is also sensitive to the further alienation in the work place that these places of “efficient” bureaucracy would present. M. Hulot fumbles about the building, looking for the man he must meet with, and is greeted by the cubicles of office workers and product sellers, alike; each person is separated into their own uniform cubicle, at once a part of the larger collective and isolated from it as they work. Whether they are performing administrative or retail/promotional work the workers are leveled in their own small units. This, naturally, becomes problematic for interpersonal relationships and M. Hulot is regularly mistaken for other people who bear maybe only the most slender resemblance to him. In an environment this atomized and radically separate there will be come loss of identity and an inability to distinguish one person from the next; the alienation is not merely a physical symptom of the bureaucracy, but also a social and interpersonal phenomenon.

Tati’s prescience again raises its head in a subsequent scene with M. Hulot encounters a friend from the military – strangely, he seems to be remarkable only in the shared light of his military service and by those with whom he spent time in combat. Hulot encounters his friend outside his chic and modern home, which is structured as a series of cube stacked beside and atop one another, their square facades all, again, transparent glass. Hulot goes inside and joins his friend for a drink at his behest, meeting his family.

Public Private LivingTati shoots this sequence entirely from a point of view external to the apartment, his camera taking in the adjacent apartment also (ironically occupied by the man who Hulot had been unable to find earlier in the office). This sequence emphasizes two aspects of how the private life has become performative in the internet age. Firstly, Tati exploits the line of sight of the characters to stage the action such that the characters seem to be reacting to actions happening in the adjacent apartment that they could not possibly know with the wall between them; the private activities of individuals becomes abstractly representative of the entertainment of others, ostensibly through the medium of television which both sets of characters seem to watch. There is also some note of foresight being struck at this moment about the incipient communal properties of mass media. Secondly, the private lives of the inhabitants of these apartments become performances for the general public, beyond those they share a wall with. The disappearance of boundaries seen between social and economic life witnessed earlier in the business office is repeated here, but between the private and public spheres of living. Private life becomes analogous to public entertainment and all internality is revealed to be part of a whole with the construction of performed personas.

In a digital age of Twitter and Facebook where the strictly private life is eroding constantly and the new public sphere of online information sharing seems to voraciously consume the personal, this observation could not seem more retrospectively  prophetic. While individuals today do not so blatantly live behind walls that are windows, we each live behind a PC that is Windows or a Mac that enables us to display the minutiae of our daily living as transparently as a glass wall would. Some individuals play out entire lives online with the aid of webcams, broadcasting their intimate encounters and breakfasts and anything in between to the world via the internet. The line between personal identity and performed persona is constantly being redefined and Tati’s film displays an uncanny awareness of this.

Play Time Door Men

Having established the fabricated nature of personal performance, the latter part of Tati’s film witnesses an evening in a newly born restaurant/night club which eventually ensnares everyone from the film. The club is still being worked on as the patrons arrive, its kitchen unfinished, its floor coming apart, as it tries to impress its upper crust clientele. Here the constructed nature of character-in-public is mirrored in the visibly constructed – and, not insignificantly, in still in progress – facade of the club. Tati takes this opportunity to level a criticism at the erudite upper class as well, having, on two instances, men man imagined doors to admit people into the club and, later, a more elite club whose door is constructed from the rubble of a collapsed ceiling. This is the political ramification of the dissolution of boundaries; if the line between private and public, or corporate and social, disappears, any attempt to prevent entry is an act bourne on the erecting of imagined portals in non-existent walls.

A tourist early in the film can only catch sight of the Eiffel Tower in the glass reflection of a door and the posters for exotic locations all feature identical high-rise buildings; in Hawaii or Sweden only the font changes while the building remains the same. Tati understands that simultaneously the most insidious and liberating aspect of this modern life is its autonomous re-iteration of itself and the leveling that this brings. His stance in the face of this is one of keen observation and a clear love of humanity. It would be one response to collapse into despair or to focus on the paradoxically restrictive function of bureaucracy removing boundaries – see Kafka or Weber, respectively – but Tati regards the situation with humour.

The Uroburos of Modern TransitM. Hulot purchases a silk kerchief for Barbara Dennek‘s young American tourist and is captured by a turnstile before he can give it to her as she departs on her bus. However, he hands it to a young man who delivers the kerchief to her as she departs. Tati ends the film witnessing the Uroburos of modern transit as cars circle one another on Parisian streets. Surely the absurdity of modern life is this activity of constant cycling without moving anywhere. However, so long as we have company to laugh alongside and aid in our small genuine gestures of affection, that we move at all is wondrous enough.


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