Society of the Spectacle

Jacques Tati’s Playtime

Jacques Tati’s 1967 film Playtime would inspire disquiet no matter what. But coming from a beloved comedian makes it particularly unsettling.

Computer hegemony. Playtime, 1967.

While still a comedy, Playtime consistently misses the mark hit by his previous films.

Instead of making us laugh out loud the way they did, Playtime inspires rueful smiles through clenched teeth. Even Monsieur Hulot, the bumbling character Tati made famous, fails to generate much mirth.

This is no accident.

Playtime was a box-office failure.

It took Tati almost a decade to make Playtime, and it cost him almost all the money he had made from his earlier work.

Given the instincts he had honed performing as a mime in the 1930s, he would surely have sensed that something was going wrong during that laborious process. Yet he persisted.


Because the point of Playtime was to show audiences how modern life deprives us of the conditions necessary for laughter.  Like the film, it teases us over and over with the promise of pure comedy. But we end up with mere amusement instead.

Although the “play time” referenced in the title may not be on the clock, it still feels like work.

Not all the energy we put into leisure activities returns to use as pleasure. A sizable percentage gets redirected toward commodified goods or services, giving them an allure absent from what we already have.

This is why Playtime lacks a coherent story. It documents the failure that plagued consumer society back in 1967 and which has only grown worse in the decades since.

Tati communicates this deprivation on a number of levels.

Hulot and the American tourists who appear in the film seem to wander aimlessly from scene to scene.

The buildings in the Parisian suburb where Playtime takes place show what happens when the International Style developed by world-class architects is mechanically reproduced to the point where it surrenders all claims to originality.

The automobiles we see are overwhelmingly grey, suggesting that the postwar fixation on greater mobility was misguided.

We do see spot colour, but it’s too infrequent to compensate for the landscape’s overwhelming drabness.

In one revealing scene, a municipal bus displaying a large Kodacolor ad on its sign navigates streets that are mostly colourless.

What good is colour film when the existence you’re documenting has been drained of hue?

Much has been made of the minimalist glass-and-steel structures that fill many frames. Expensive to devise, they contributed greatly to the production being so profligate with both time and money.

Above all else, this architecture comments on the Enlightenment dream of achieving transparency in human affairs.

The minor character who damages his nose after walking straight into a glass door succinctly testifies to the paradox of hypervisibility. Even when design makes it possible for us to see more than before, we can still be blind to what matters, to the materiality of transparency.

Playtime also wryly suggests that all that plate glass might make it harder to discern the value of the built landscape that proceeded its installation.

We only see famous landmarks of Paris, such as the Arc de Triomphe or the Eiffel Tower, as reflections. They briefly loom up like mirages on a distant horizon. And the relentlessly modern spaces fabricated for the production do have the character of a desert.

Tati also takes pains to remind us that a built landscape that permits us to see more also tends to make us hear more. Early in the picture, we notice how hard it is to avoid making noise while moving through these spaces, from the shiny, rugless floors to the sleek chairs whose cushions loudly exhale whenever someone gets up from them.

Playtime depicts a world in which the panoptic goes hand in hand with the panacoustic. There are few places to hide.

Then again, it doesn’t seem that anyone in the film has very much worth hiding.

When an old army buddy spots Hulot and invites him into his apartment for a drink, we are confronted by the disturbing spectacle of a society in which it’s easy to peer into the lives of one’s fellow human beings but hard to get anybody interested in actually doing so.

Even though passersby on the street outside can see what transpires in this man’s apartment, as well as that of his neighbours, they just stroll on past.

In Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 film Rear Window, Jimmy Stewart’s wheelchair-bound character uses binoculars and a telephoto lens to observe what’s going on in the apartments overlooking his courtyard.

Playtime turns this louche voyeurism on its head, showcasing a world in which people eagerly offer themselves up to the gaze of others but fail to secure meaningful engagement.

How do we respond historically to a film like Playtime?

We can focus on all the differences we discern between the world it depicts and the one that we encounter today, over half a century later.

The fashion, the cars, and the modes of social interaction in the film are all distinctly mid-twentieth-century, whether we remember that era directly, as retirees do, or indirectly, through our parents, grandparents, and the popular culture passed down to us through music, film, and television.

The concerns communicated by Tati’s mise-en-scène, with its satirically exaggerated details, appear similarly dated.

We no longer worry so much about the extinction of local colour threatened by the globalisation of modern aesthetics. Nor is there reason to lament the superficial experiences cultivated by the tourism industry.

Even though those problems were never solved, the Internet has made it vastly easier for people who want a deeper understanding of what makes a place special to find the information they need.

More abstractly, the absurdity of trying to manage consumer society according to rationalist principles has faded from view as we contend with its decidedly post-rational legacy.

When even once-sober pursuits like financial planning are revealed to be gambling by another name, it becomes clear that the logic of addiction dominates everyday life.

Nevertheless, while it’s important to remember just how far away Playtime seems from our current reality, we would do both the film and ourselves a grave disservice if we simply tabulated the breaks and ruptures it lays bare.

The perception of discontinuity must go hand in hand with a dogged attempt to trace the tangled, twisted lines that brought us from there to here. Because no matter how strange the mid-1960s initially appear to us, there is no doubt that the world we know today was already emerging back then.

The nearly identical travel posters we see in Playtime, in which the same minimal high-rise appears, reflect the impact of global satellite communication, which made it theoretically possible for the whole world to be watching the same program simultaneously.

That is precisely what The Beatles’ famous performance of “All You Need Is Love” during the Summer of Love demonstrated.

Suddenly, it was possible to synchronize the experience of audiences thousands of miles away from each other, creating the consumer society version of the Gleichschaltung to which totalitarian regimes aspire.

The mid-1960s were also when the computer age really began to make its presence felt.

Instead of being reserved for governments or academic researchers, access to mainframes was becoming important for corporations. And the prospect of a society in which ordinary people would be able to use computers at home no longer seemed like a futuristic pipe dream.

It can be hard to remember, with all the attention paid to idiosyncratic forms of expression online, that whatever liberty we exercise there is founded on the structural commonality that makes it possible.

Our freedom takes shape within a frame that diminishes its value. Diversity is  contained by the excessively administered environment that we all share.

If we are going to get the maximum benefit from watching Playtime today, we should do our best to watch it dialectically, discerning continuities in the appearance of discontinuity and vice versa.

We also need to move beyond literal interpretation.

The physical environments we encounter today are unlikely to approach the Modernist extreme that Tati ironizes. Despite 20th-century efforts expended to clear away residues of the past from public spaces, evidence of that older world is more likely to be valued today than the structures that were supposed to supplant it.

On the contrary, it’s examples of what French cultural critic Marc Augé termed “supermodernity” that are likely to be endangered.

But if we expend the effort to transpose Playtime’s critique to the virtual environments we move through today, its apparent datedness disappears.

Social media platforms and branded mobile apps may not seem to have much in common with sleek glass-and-steel buildings. Yet they perform the same function, making our lives more transparent to others.

Like the character who walks into a plate glass door in the film or the ones who briefly glimpse a classic French landmark’s reflection, we find ourselves in a hall of mirrors where we are overwhelmed by how much we are able to see at any given moment.

But we struggle to perceive the structures that make that hypervisibility possible, not to mention the reality that lies beyond them.

On a granular level, our experience of these virtual environments seems much richer than the impoverished existence depicted in Playtime.

If we step back far enough, however, it becomes possible to perceive that this plenitude is circumscribed by walls that prevent us from acknowledging what they exclude.

The more we see the Eiffel Tower on Instagram posts or the Arc de Triomphe on smartphone videos, the harder it becomes to remember why we might want to experience them in person instead of these easily contained reflections.

In Playtime, Jacques Tati not only created one of the most powerful rebukes of the pursuit of modernisation for its own sake. He also gave us the means to interrogate the society that emerged from the wake of that undertaking.

Screenshot courtesy of Matthew H. Published under a Creative Commons license.