The connection to Blake Edwards brings up an interesting point. Some have claimed that Edwards based the title event in The Party (1968) on the restaurant scene in Playtime. I asked a Blake Edwards expert about this and it seems unlikely — even though both Edwards and Peter Sellers were upfront about The Party drawing its inspiration from Tati. The thing is Playtime — which opened in France on Christmas in 1967 — didn’t appear in the U.S. till 1973. The Party opened in early April of 1968. It really doesn’t add up — though there’s no denying that two scenes share a similar vibe. However, the Peter Sellers’ Hrundi V. Bakshi character is more like the Hulot character of earlier Tati films — a good-natured fellow with a knack for accidentally creating disasters of which he’s often unaware. The Hulot of Playtime is different in that he mostly just wanders through disasters that he had nothing to do with. It’s a pretty distinct difference.
The casual viewer — and the French audience in 1967, for that matter — is likely to spend the first part of the film waiting for some kind of plot to kick in, or at least a definite situation. This barely happens. After a few minutes of it not even being clear what the setting is, we find Hulot ushered into a glass-walled room where he does nothing more than find a fascination with the modern chairs as kind of natural whoopee cushions. This should serve as a clue to the viewer that this will be the primary approach of the film — Tati as both Hulot and the filmmaker — expressing his bemused take on modern Paris. He had toyed with this in his previous film, Mon Oncle (1958), but there Hulot was an active participant — and there was a vestige of plot.
Playtime is something else — a grand canvas of random observations with only a smattering of what we think of as gags. In this modern Paris we only get glimpses of the traditional Paris caught in reflections when glass doors are opened or closed. Confusion — even minor disasters — occur because of instructional sign that are English (both, it seems, because of imported technology and to make things easier for American tourists). Tati runs into an old friend who insists on taking home for a drink. Home turns out to be a modern monstrosity of an apartment with uncurtained glass walls open to the street. The gags are all in long-shot — observations of the friend’s apartment and the apartment next door. Nothing is emphasized and it all relies on the viewer looking around the frame. As an experiment, it’s fascinating. As a viable approach to commercial cinema, it’s another matter. That was something Tati would quickly learn.
Classic World Cinema by Courtyard Gallery will present Playtime Friday, Jan. 9, at 8 p.m. at Phil Mechanic Studios, 109 Roberts St., River Arts District (upstairs in the Railroad Library). Info: 273-3332, www.ashevillecourtyard.com