How did I manage to get this far in life without seeing Play Time?
Having never been to Paris, and having not been alive when Play Time was made, it seemed oddly retro-futuristic and outside of time to me, like a science-fiction film that doesn’t know it’s one. (Though the friend I watched it with this weekend seemed to find it distressing: “Paris doesn’t look like this,” she kept saying.)
And Paris doesn’t look like that, because no real-world city does—the sets were built from scratch, in an effort that look even larger than that required to mount the street-sized sets of films like Asphalt and Eyes Wide Shut. Play Time‘s city is full of featureless modernist monstrosities, rendered in muted colors of blue and silver and pewter (and the limited palette was achieved not through color grading after the fact, but during production, by matching the costumes and automobiles and buildings. This makes the photography seem somehow more vibrant to the eye than the same film might be if it were made today). This is a film in which the capital-C City is a primary character, and you can perhaps see the genesis of later movies like Brazil and Dark City here.
The protagonist, Monsieur Hulot, is attempting to meet a functionary in an office building—that’s most of the plot. To say more than that would ruin the surprises, except to say that a group of obnoxious American tourists gets involved (though as loud and clumsy as they are, note that their clothing supplies most of the movie’s rare splashes of primary colors). Near the end, there’s an extended sequence in a nightclub that’s as perfect an example of entropy (in a metaphorical sense) as I can think of in a movie. Everything in the club goes perfectly, until its guests actually start showing up; they behave in entirely unpredictable ways, many of which involve alcohol. Sight gags pile up on each other, two and three on screen at a time; by the end, it’s almost total chaos.
Play Time is interested in humanity’s relationship to technology, and though you couldn’t call it optimistic, the movie rides a fine line between humor and despair. The frustration and ambiguity of communication in the industrial age (which is ultimately what the film is concerned with, though it takes a number of detours) is always depicted with a lighthearted comic style. By the end of the film (when the oblivious American tourists are headed back to the airport and splotches of color begin to appear, subversively, on the walls and in the streets of the monochrome city), we have, like those tourists, the impression of having spent a short but pleasant time in an alien place, a place that might seem different to us if we were to try to live there.