Play Time is French director Jacques Tati's fourth major film, and generally considered to be his masterpiece work. It was shot in 1964 through 1967 and released in . In Play Time, Tati again plays Monsieur Hulot, a character who had appeared in some of his earlier films, including Mon Oncle and Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot. However, by 1964 Tati had grown ambivalent towards playing Hulot as a recurring central role. Unable to dispense with the popular character altogether, Hulot appears intermittently in Play Time, alternating between central and supporting roles. Shot in 70mm, Play Time is notable for its enormous set, which Tati had built specially for the film, as well as Tati's trademark use of subtle, yet complex visual comedy supported by creative sound effects; dialogue is frequently reduced to the level of background noise.
In Play Time, Tati's character, M. Hulot, and a group of American tourists attempt to navigate a futuristic Paris constructed of straight lines, modernist glass and steel high-rise buildings, multi-lane roadways, and cold, artificial furnishings. In this environment, only the irrepressible nonconformity of human nature and an occasional appreciation for the good old days breathe life into an otherwise sterile urban lifestyle. Modern industrial technologies, accepted by necessary by society, are represented by Tati as obstructions to daily life and an interference to natural human interaction.
The film is famous for its enormous, specially constructed set and background stage, known as 'Tativille', which cost enormous sums to build and maintain. The set required a hundred construction workers to construct along with its own power plant. Storms, budget crises, and other disasters stretched the shooting schedule to three years. Budget overruns forced Tati to take out large loans and personal overdrafts to cover ever-increasing production costs.
As Play Time depended greatly on visual comedy and sound effects, Tati chose to shoot the film on the high-resolution 70mm film format, together with a complicated (for its day) stereophonic soundtrack.
To save money, some of the building facades and the interior of the Orly set were actually giant photographs. (The photographs also had the advantage of not reflecting the camera or lights.) The Paris landmarks Barbara sees reflected in the glass door are also photographs. Tati also used life-sized cutout photographs of people to save money on extras. These cutouts are noticeable in some of the cubicles when Hulot overlooks the maze of offices, and in the deep background in some of the shots at ground level from one office building to another.
One reason for the film's commercial failure may have been Tati's insistence that the film be limited to those theaters equipped with 70mm projectors and stereophonic sound (he refused to provide a 35mm version for smaller theaters). For another, audiences worldwide had come to love Tati's films for the character of M. Hulot; his reduction to an intermittent, occasionally supporting role in the new Tati film came as a disappointment to many (Tati himself lampooned the phenomenon in an early scene in Play Time, when a rain-coated pedestrian whose back is turned to the audience is mistakenly hailed as Hulot). Others disliked its nearly plotless story line, while those who only saw a single showing frequently missed the intricate, sometimes simultaneous comic sight gags performed in the various group scenes. A final reason for the film's poor reception may have been its release date; while the film's satire of modern life may have been cutting-edge when first conceptualized in 1959, by the end of 1967 such themes were old-hat to movie audiences.
Results were the same upon the film's eventual release in the U.S. in 1973 (even though it had finally been converted to a 35mm format at the insistence of U.S. distributors and edited down to 103 minutes). Though Vincent Canby of the New York Times called Playtime "Tati's most brilliant film", it was no more a commercial success in the U.S. than in France. Debts incurred as a result of the film's cost overruns eventually forced Tati to file for bankruptcy.
Despite its disastrous financial failure, Play Time is regarded as a great achievement by many critics. Most have noted its subtlety and complexity: it is not easily absorbed at one sitting. François Truffaut wrote that Play Time was "a film that comes from another planet, where they make films differently". British critic Gilbert Adair has noted that the film has to be viewed "several times, each from a different seat in the auditorium" in order to view the many small, tightly-choreographed sight gags by several different actors, sometimes displayed nearly simultaneously on the huge 70mm screen. Nor is the humor restricted to human behavior alone — a gag may revolve around an everyday object or phenomenon such as the mundane hum of a neon sign or the sound of whipped cream squirting out of a can.
Tati wanted the film to be in color but look like it was filmed in black and white; an effect he had previously employed to some extent in Mon Oncle. Predominant colors are in shades of grey, blue, black, and greyish white. Green and red are used as occasional accent colors: for example, the greenish hue of patrons lit by a neon sign in a sterile and modern lunch counter, or the flashing red light on a office intercom. It has been said that Tati had one red item in every shot. Except for a single flower stall, there are no genuine green plants or trees on the set, though dull plastic plants adorn the outer balconies of some buildings, including the restaurant (the one location shot apart from the road to the airport). Thus, when the character of Barbara arrives at the Royal Garden restaurant in an emerald green dress seen as 'dated' by the other whispering female patrons clothed in dark attire, she visually contrasts not only with the other diners, but also with the entire physical environment of the film. As the characters in the restaurant scene begin to lose their normal social inhibitions and revel in the unraveling of their surroundings, Tati intensifies both color and lighting accordingly: late arrivals to the restaurant are less conservative, arriving in vibrant, often patterned clothing.
Tati detested close-ups, considering them crude, and shot in medium-format 70mm film so that all the actors and their physical movements would be visible, even when they were in the far background of a group scene. He used sound rather than visual cues to direct the audience's attention; with the large image size, sound could be both high and low in the image as well as left and right. As with most Tati films, sound effects were utilized to intensify comedic effect; Leonard Maltin wrote that Tati was the "only man in movie history to get a laugh out of the hum of a neon sign! Almost the entire film was dubbed after shooting; the editing process took nine months.
"If Play Time has a plot, it's how the curve comes to reassert itself over the straight line." This progression is carried out in numerous ways. At the beginning of the film, people walk in straight lines and turn on right angles. Only working-class construction workers (representing Hulot's 'old Paris', celebrated in Mon Oncle) and two music-loving teenagers move in a curvaceous and naturally human way. Some of this robotlike behavior begins to loosen in the restaurant scene near the end of the film, as the participants set aside their assigned roles and learn to enjoy themselves after a plague of opening-night disasters. Throughout the film, the American tourists are continually lined up and counted, though Barbara keeps escaping and must be frequently called back to conform with the others. By the end, she has united the curve and the line (Hulot's gift, a square scarf, is fitted to her round head); her straight bus ride back to the airport becomes lost in a seemingly endless traffic circle that has the atmosphere of a carnival ride.
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