The moment the opening credits fade to black, the audience is thrown into a universe where everything happens all at once. With a minimum of ten people in every frame, the audience has no choice but to watch the movie through straight peripheral vision. Playtime is a glorified play. From the cinematography to the set design and actor’s performance, the entire movie screams “theatre”. It plays a joke on the truths of society from afar. Despite the proper attire used throughout the entirety of the film, no one is taken seriously.
The comedy in this movie derives from the intensity of every character’s action. Every movement from their walks, gestures, and interactions are intensely pronounced. If a character were to stand up from his seat at dinner, the audience would know from his first two steps where he is headed. There is no need for dialogue, for his body says it all. This helps further the story without redundant conversation. It’s a good way of putting actors in a position to succeed. They function as plot devices using actions more than words. Modern cinema is oversaturated with Adam Sandler led comedies which rely solely on wacky dialogue to get cheap laughs, so it’s quite refreshing to watch a movie that knows how to harness an actor’s full potential. The actors really shine as the camera follows in an impressively immersive story told the characters movements. It progresses the same way a play would.
“The performer is one element among many in a frame. The filmmaker can use lighting, camerawork, editing, and sound to modulate and strengthen the actor’s performance,” (Prince 110). The cinematography becomes more artistic in the use of follow shots, reflections, and framing, all of which revolve around the actors. Reflective scenery is often used to give the audience sight lines that they wouldn’t normally have. When a woman boards a tour bus to sight see, she sits down with the airport sign stating “Paris”, balancing the frame outside her window. Every glass door after that cast a reflection of the outside world. Another example of the cinematography cohesively gelling with the actors arrives in the form of Hulot chasing Mr. Giffard. As he spies on Giffard, while riding down an escalator into a maze of cubicles, the camera stays at his level so the moment he loses sight of Giffard, the audience loses him too. It connects the audience to Hulot by transposing our consciousness into his. He is lost; therefore, so are we. Eventually we are able to see the cat and mouse chase the ensues throughout the entirety of the movie, because Hulot never finds anything he’s looking for, it just all finds him.
The audience’s introduction to Hulot begins before he ever appears on screen. He is foreshadowed by a man who is walking like he’s wearing shoes four sizes too big. While the audience doesn’t know why yet, they will come to learn that it’s because of his goofy walk. Hugot’s first real appearance begins with him clumsily getting off the public bus. He stumbles, bumps into people, and almost forgets his umbrella. It’s a great sign of what’s to come because the rest of the film is the audience enduring all his mistakes.
Hulot is lost the whole movie. The first thing he does when he gets off the bus is ask for directions to the place that is right behind him. He then walks through a blockade of cars instead of going around it, and then proceeds to slowly murder the audience’s enjoyment of slapstick humor for the next two hours. The camera follows him spending the entire day stumbling through every situation in pure Mr. Bean fashion, no matter how simple it really is. He really seems to be contemplating his existence. To him, everything is a room with people who are taking him to other rooms with more people. He is constantly looking around with sheer curiosity. He just seems like he’s never been outside before. Hulot’s visual typage suggested by his size and stature is embodied in the way he moves about. The clumsiness comes from his height. When he starts leaning just a little bit, his entire body follows as if he was a leaning tower.
Amplification of gesture and expression is a double-edged sword. While it can enhance an already funny scene into being hilarious, it can catapult a crappy scene into a complete disaster. A film actor, “has to precisely calibrate the smallest degree of facial and vocal reaction with the knowledge of how that will play when magnified on the giant motion picture screen,” (Prince 111). In live theatre, over-performing is encouraged in order to keep the audience entertained, but in cinema every minor detail is much more impactful. With the use of cinematography, lighting, and other aspects of visual design, the entirety of the story doesn’t just fall on the actor. There needs to be a balance, so no aspect of the film is overbearing.
Playtime infuses a perfect blend of acting amplification. Most of the jokes come from the over emphasizing of monotonous tasks. No scene proves that to be true more than the scene with Hulot sitting down next to another man as they both anticipate being called for their perspective meetings. Hulot watches the proper man execute everything he has to do effortlessly and in the span of thirty seconds. He wipes his brow, signs a document, clicks his pen, fixes his shoes, and claps his hand with ridiculous precision. He is an exquisitely choreographed ballet recital to Hulot’s monster truck rally. His dark suit emphasizes his security and knowledge in what he’s doing, while Hulot’s grey solidifies his perpetual curiosity and lack of absolute knowledge. It’s appropriate that he gets called in first, leaving Hulot left just as lost as he was when he arrived.
As great as this movie is, there are some negatives. Hulot’s character eventually becomes tiresome because of his lack of character development and growth. After watching him Forrest Gump his way through every situation, the gags revolving him become stale. The wide shots which show upwards of 50 characters do a great job of showing the audience how hectic the world can be, but they can overcrowd the eyes at times. Besides that, the restaurant scenes towards the end leave the audience with some of the most memorable moments. The doorman leading people into the building with just the door handle because the glass door broke is a great use of stage design and an example of ingenious writing. The ceiling collapsing and being used as the decorative entrance to a VIP section also left me laughing. These scenes resonate with the audience because they show that even though life isn’t perfect, it’s what you make if it that matters.
Actions are exaggerated to such a ridiculous extent that the audience can’t help but laugh. The scene where the fish touched five pairs of hands before being presented, only for it to be seasoned and cooked in front of them, and then appropriately brought it to a completely different table because they messed up the order, was a great use of tension. It was an interesting scene to follow because it’s so painfully accurate to how the restaurant business can be. Spinning the boring aspects of life into silly moments can produce an endearing film.
Playtime reminds the audience that life isn’t just one story. The collaboration of all our stories is what makes life worthwhile. Most movies zero-in on a handful of character’s evolutions, trials, and tribulations, but Playtime shows the world as it really is. Life moves pretty fast, if you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.
Prince, S. (2012). Movies and Meaning: An introduction to film. Harlow, Essex: Pearson.