Leaving New York City’s two-week window of unhateful weather was tough cookies already, but almost as soon as we set foot in Champaign-Urbana, thunder clapped and great bolts of lightening danced. It was worth it to watch festival heavies tread gingerly on the fine rugs at the university president’s house rather than in his garden, where the opening ceremonies were set to take place. Between the wall-to-wall carpeting and the abundance of white folks, I could’ve sworn I was back in my high school boyfriend’s rec room; a powerful craving for grape soda and French kissing seized me. Instead, we gnawed on prosciutto-wrapped asparagus and chatted with feminist professors before we crashed through the rain to catch the opening screening.
Not shockingly, Tati’s Playtime is an entirely different experience when screened in 70mm on the jam-packed theater’s enormous screen, introduced by a real-life organ. Truly a silent movie with dialogue, the few lines spoken — and the myriad languages in which they are uttered — are irrelevant as the story is conveyed so clearly nonverbally. Following a host of mid-‘60s characters from the airport through one day in a sound-stage Paris, the film’s protagonist is the human race itself as seen through a kind of National Geographic lens. As highly stylized as a Buster Keaton jig cut out of modernist sharp corners and floppy flowered hats, every moment recalls the very droll mis-en-scenes buried in more acclaimed, more narrative-driven narrative films of the same era. Imagine, for example, if the whole tone of Breakfast at Tiffany’s took its cue from the rhapsodic party scene with the heiresses, the vamps, the barking agents, the woman laughing, the woman crying, the treacherously long cigarette holder, and Cat prowling matter-of-factly amidst people’s fur stoles. At that, imagine if life did.
In the discussion that followed, critic Jonathan Rosenbaum revealed to Ebert that he briefly worked for Tati. Since typically working for your heroes sours you on them forever, just the fact that Rosenbaum still trips over himself in praise for the filmmaker is momentous. “You had to be aware that everything that crossed his path made its way into his movies,” he said.
Rosenbaum also spoke of a sadness about the isolation and sterility of modernity that he felt permeated the film, particularly through the use of architectural details like doors and windows: The sharp lines of the airport and city streets give way to the wild curves of a later nightclub scene, where social boundaries are metaphorically and physically scotched. I’m not so sure. An existentialist joy imbues each frame, a love of humans in all their vanities and ungainliness. Tati embraces his characters the way a parent unconditionally loves his errant child.