Comic filmmaker Jacques Tati experienced a brief art-house vogue in this country after winning an Oscar for best foreign film of 1958 with Mon Oncle. Although immensely popular in his native France, he never really caught on in the United States. It’s not difficult to see why. Tati’s specialty is the sight gag, rendered with the rigorous cleverness of a silent film comedian, usually set in a busy milieu, the viewer’s eye rarely directed toward the joke. Playtime takes Tati’s distancing tendencies to an extreme, and a first-time viewer couldn’t be blamed for wondering why they’re being shown so much and just why it’s supposed to be funny. In order to enjoy Tati you have to abandon your preconceptions about how a comedic film should be presented and how it should unfold.

Playtime (1967) was the third Tati film to feature his character Monsieur Hulot, and it’s a film of such challenging originality that it didn’t even go over that well in France, though some critics now consider it his masterpiece. It takes place in an imagined Paris — Tati actually had two office buildings, facades and surrounding roadways built for the film — where groups of people bustle about in a sterile modern setting. For Tati, modernity is not conducive to human behavior and much of the humor of the film is derived from people’s haplessness when faced with a technology that seems to have a mind of its own.

The film has no plot per se, just a day in the life of the city, consisting of a series of drifting setpieces that begin in an airport and end in a nightclub. Hulot, a tall awkward character who always has his raincoat and umbrella despite the sunny weather, is only occasionally the central character; more often he’s a part of the crowd, just one feature in a landscape of small comic details. Tati almost never uses close-ups (which is why his films are best seen on a big screen, and why the restored version playing at the DFT is a must-see), preferring a wide-screen deep-focus mise-en-scène that plays like a series of master shots. And though he’s not above using some conventional comedic devices — slapstick, mistaken identity, etc. — there’s an extra layer of humor here derived from the absurd context of a city that’s trying to pass itself off as a normal place to live.

It’s been often remarked that Tati’s theme is alienation. It’s also about coping, as made clear in the increasingly frantic conviviality of the long, climactic nightclub sequence, with the club slowly but literally falling apart as the crowd gets drunker and could care less. Then comes the sanity of dawn and everything starts over again.

In French, English and German, but with no subtitles, as the dialogue is inconsequential. Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), Monday, Oct. 4, at 7:30 p.m. Call 313-833-3237.

Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].

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