I have read some of the other reviews here of Jaques Tati's Playtime. Most of the reviews seem to be lukewarm at best (even the positive reviews being a bit guarded) with a few pointedly negative reviews. I want to start off by making it clear that I respect those opinions. I'm adding my viewpoint here to offer a different way of thinking about this unique masterpiece with the hope that it will help open-minded and adventurous film fans.
Briefly, the technical details of the DVD: The DVD contains the full-length (previously released versions in cinemas were often edited for length), 70 mm (essentially, the old school version of IMAX -- i.e., the highest resolution film stock available; previous releases were often in 35 mm because of technical limitations), 7-track stereo audio version (I say more about this below) of Playtime -- essentially the version as Tati intended. The DVD also contains a couple of brief documentaries on Jaques Tati's career and the making of Playtime. Those two documentaries alone (as brief as they are) makes it worthwhile for Tati fans to get this DVD.
Having got that out of the way, I want to note that I'm actually going to focus my review more on the film -- at least the version that is as close to Tati's intentions as possible -- itself rather than the DVD.
I first saw this film at a French film festival at Cambridge's Arts Picturehouse. Despite my enthusiasm for French movies, I have to admit that this is the first Tati film I had seen (since then, I've seen most of his other films).
The revival version I saw of Playtime was the full-length, 70 mm, 7-track audio version of the film -- as mentioned earlier, as close to Tati's vision of the film as possible. They showed the film on the largest screen available. The 7-track stereo audio had to be handled in a way that is rare in the post-silent film era; the audio track was not on the film reel itself but was on a separate disc that had to be synched up with the film.
As I sat in the front row, I had an unprecedented sense of being enveloped by a film ... cinema as an all-encompassing experience. Part of it, I'm sure, was the technical aspects. The richly restored colours and film stock shown in its full, high resolution 70 mm glory (on the big screen of a theatre no less). While Tati's films are more akin to silent films in the sense that the dialogue is there more for affect rather than as a plot driving device, nonetheless, the mutli-tracked audio also lends itself to an awe-inspiring experience by elevating the seemingly mundane and ordinary sounds of daily life to the level of an epic cinematic soundtrack.
But it's not just the artiface, it's the art -- in this case, the film -- itself. Taking place in an artificial Paris (affectionately nicknamed by the press as 'Tativille') that's more a mash-up of the Jetsons and Bauhaus (i.e., something like Canary Wharf) rather than the more familiar Hausmann, Tati does a witty take on a hyper-real version of day-to-day life in a modern metropolis. There are so many delightful details and touches to this film -- in any one scene, there can be a dozen fascinating things happening at various points on the screen -- the viewer gets the sense of being caught up in the world -- a world with as much hustle-and-bustle as our more familiar one -- Tati created.
Many people here and elsewhere make it a point to say that Jaques Tati seems to be doing social commentary through his films, especially Playtime. I can't quite agree with that viewpoint. If Tati is doing any social commentary at all, it seems as though he does much less of it than what Charlie Chaplin -- clearly an influence on Tati -- did in his films.
Instead of thinking of Tati's films (including this one) as some sort of stentorian social commentary, I think it's better to think of it as observational humour. Whatever 'critique' Tati may have to offer about modern living seems to be done with a lot of finesse and joie de vivre rather than in some sort of scolding tone.
I also think, contrary to what some others have said, that there are plenty of physical and visual gags here to keep both casual and devoted fans of Tati smiling (my favourite is the glass door bit at the restaurant). But I should note that it's not really slapstick commedy (but that's also true with most of his other films); again, it's more observational humour rather than sheer bawdiness our knee-slapping hillarity.
As I mentioned earlier, Playtime is the first Tati film I ever saw. Since then, I've seen many of the others. The other films are, needless to say, great. However, I will always believe that Playtime -- seen as Tati had intended and not in the limited ways it's been presented -- is his masterpiece and his best film. There are so many joyous details in every single frame of this film that I believe that I could see Tati's Playtime a thousand times and still discover a touch, a stroke, a detail by the master. I can't say that for many other films (including Tati's other great films). Playtime is not just a film, it's an experience.
I suspect that some of the people who saw this film in the past (in theatres) and are giving it negative reviews saw a bastardized version of it (35 mm, edited for length, etc.). Even though they may have seen it again on DVD -- and even though, as I've said, the DVD has the fully restored version -- they may have unfortunately been deprived of the real thing ... the true masterpiece as Tati intended. Any truncated version -- including the DVD (even if one were to see it on the largest plasma television possible with an excellent audio kit) -- can never capture the magic I felt as I sat there in the front row enveloped by the rich details of the 70 mm print, on a larger than life screen, with the 7-tracked audio, in a cinema.
Tati's Playtime is in that sense like Carol Reed's The Third Man [DVD] [1949
]. No matter how much I enjoy seeing The Third Man on DVD, I always have the nagging feeling that the ideal place to see it is huddled in a dusky theatre, sheltered against the cool twilight of a Viennese night.
Similarly, to be fully appreciated, Jaques Tati's Playtime has to be seen in a theatre, on a large screen, in 70 mm, with the life-as-a-soundtrack mutli-layered audio, prepared to enter Tati's world -- a funny, witty, and colour-filled version that mimics our often dreary one.
It is one of my fondest wishes that, before I pass away, I get to have that unique experience -- seeing Playtime as Tati intended -- again. It is my hope for all of us on this New Year's Day.