From Holiday to Playtime

M. Hulot’s Holiday (dir. Jacques Tati, 1953, France)

Long an enduring cornerstone of international cinema, the on-screen debut of Jacques Tati’s beloved Monsieur Hulot is as much a loving Valentine to the bygone age of silent comedy that preceded it as it is to the Riviera vacations the film gently, lovingly mocks. Tati’s already impeccably steady hand as director (this, just his fourth film credit as such) and star (instantly iconic, with trench coat and smoking pipe) created one of cinema’s most enduring characters and marked the start of one of film comedy’s most beloved and original series. Rarely one to set up laugh-out-loud slapstick set-pieces, M. Hulot’s Holiday also hides beneath its surface a satirical look at the French middle class, perfectly timed and expertly relalized. Over the course of three decades (Tati was never a quick producer, his films separated by years of planning in-between) Hulot’s adventures would take him from Holiday’s coastal bliss to the somewhat more socially critical – and in many ways, shockingly experimental – Playtime (1967) and Trafic (1971). But here already, at the saga’s very beginning, Tati already had his formula perfectly in place. Start to finish, this is how it feels to smile knowingly for 87 minutes.

Playtime (dir. Jacques Tati, 1967, France)

While M. Hulot’s Holiday gently mocked the middle-class summer crowds on France’s Mediterranean beaches, by the time of Playtime (the third full-length Hulot film), writer and director (plus the actor behind Hulot himself) Jacques Tati’s focus had changed to the broader landscape of life in a modern city. While the epic production of Playtime left Tati penniless (and without much choice but to bring back Hulot for his final go before the cameras in the somewhat less pointedly topical Trafic), in retrospect what emerges is a fanatically perfectionist master filmmaker’s grandest statement. In a world of cubicles populated by a working class unmoving on escalators, Playtime makes a case for the widening distances between the citizens of closely shared spaces. Filmed in stunning 65 mm, Playtime is both hilarious and melancholic, equal parts full of life and suffocating. Experienced in the digital age, in which the majority of our relationships are fulfilled via the internet and mobile telephones, Tati’s hypothesis on the growing gaps between people casts an even darker shade on modern city living. Completed following the bittersweet writing of The Illusionist (a script intended to heal the battered relationship between Tati and his daughter, it remained un-filmed until Sylvain Chomet’s 2010 animated adaptation also showing this year at CIFF), Playtime is a comedic mourn for the simple seaside life displayed so ideally in M. Hulot’s Holiday just 13 years previous. 43 years on, there is still much to learn from Tati’s greatest undertaking.


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