There are a handful of films I would liken to a dance – seamless, lyrical, moving from one sequence to another with a distinct, choreographed fluidity. WhileThe Tree of Life plays like a anthology piece with interwoven movements and sequences, none is more of a ballet than Jacques Tati’s 1967 master workPlaytime.
Over the course of two hours, Playtime is a continuous stream of conscious with very, very little dialogue, feeling as though there are zero cuts or scene changes. Rather, the scenery just keeps being moved behind the tableau of technology and comedy with its own sense of rhythm.
Tati’s mannerisms as an actor are rather dance-like, almost harking back to the days of vaudeville. His emphasis on physical comedy creates almost individual dances within the film – his iconic scene on the slippery floor plays like a solo, moving around the space in a studied, theatrical fashion.
Beyond the character of Hulot, there also exists a unique, balletic style in the remainder of the cast of characters the audience encounters. Taking moments to focus on individuals, Tati gives his company members solos in a way background characters are given small moments at the centre of the stage in a ballet, leaping in and out of the story as observers as a moments notice, giving the audience a brief insight into themselves.
Creating an elaborate city that simultaneously feels real and like a massive set, Tati further creates the illusion of a production. The camera is positioned above, so the audience can see characters moving around in a measured, choreographed way between open topped cubicles set in a perfectly straight line, or in the corner of a room, in a way that an a theatre viewer would be viewing the production. Like a theatrical set, everything on the stage is used, creating sound and giving depth to the scene. The machines make their own music, creating unique sounds that provide a majority of the orchestrations, cast members interacting with every prop and using it to contribute to the film, whether that is by using a broken wall piece as a gate, or broken glass as ice.
Playtime is a film of many contradictions. It’s busy but minimalistic in design, grand but intimate in scale, and messy but tightly orchestrated, partygoers moving around in a frenetic but perfectly rehearsed manner. It’s organised chaos of the best kind, and a truly unique, ambitious film of the best kind.
G, 124 mins.