Film appreciation: Jacques Tati's Playtime - master class in choreography

Regarded as one of the greatest movies ever made, its focus on the interaction of large groups of characters gives this film a unique, abstract feel - Truffaut once called it film-making "from another planet".

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 22 July, 2015, 10:23pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 23 July, 2015, 5:23pm

The art of cinema is all about capturing motion, and no film does this as well as French director Jacques Tati's 1967 comedy Playtime. Held together by the slimmest of plots and peppered with snippets of dialogue, Tati's fourth full-length film is a masterpiece of choreography. The story serves as a brilliant exploration of Tati's usual concerns, the problems of technological progress and the superficial existence of the French moneyed class. But it's the beautifully controlled crowd sequences that elevate the film to classic status.

Although Tati brought back Monsieur Hulot from his previous two successes, Mr Hulot's Holiday and My Uncle, for Playtime, the character is hardly centre stage in the storyline, which revolves around the interaction of large groups of characters.

It begins in an airport, tracking individuals as they arrive in France. The next section is set in a modernist office building, and features Hulot grappling with new-fangled gadgets like automatic lifts. The final part, which proves to be Tati's tour de force, is set in a restaurant/nightclub and details the fraught interactions between the many guests and staff.

WATCH Playtime trailer

The focus on choreography, which looks naturalistic even though it's carefully coordinated, gives the film a unique abstract feel — Francois Truffaut once described it as "a film that comes from another planet". The dialogue accentuates its unusual nature, as the microphone flits around the locations, picking up brief snatches of conversation as it goes. Tati used the form of the film to tell an expansive story about modern life.

Tati's comedy is subtle and there are no laugh-out-loud moments. Scenes in which a doorman opens an empty glass door with a doorknob recall the work of silent comedian Buster Keaton, and Tati's penchant for drawing humour from Hulot's awkward gait is Chaplinesque. Tati's observant camerawork also shows the influence of documentary filmmaking.

Playtime was Tati's dream project, and he spent nine years making it. He had to sell his house to raise funds to keep the production going, and although it's regarded as one of the greatest films ever made, he never fully recovered from the financial problems it caused him.

Playtime, July 25, 8pm, agnès b. cinema, Hong Kong Arts Centre, 2 Harbour Road, Wan Chai