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Playtime: The Criterion Collection

Nine years after the release of Jacques Tati's Mon Oncle, the actor/director gave the world Playtime his third and most visually stunning Monsieur Hulot film. The comedy is considered a masterpiece, and rightfully so. Going all-out in the mockery of modern design that he touched on in the previous outing, Tati's sharp satirical eye turns to the pervading American culture of 1967. Typical for Tati, the almost dialogueless film is a simple exercise: Hulot (Tati) needs to keep an appointment. In his attempt to get there, we see him tackle various modern conveniences, pretentious restaurants, and other catastrophes. Most importantly, through Hulot's eyes we observe American tourists wandering through "Paris" on vacation. They pass through sleek, glass-and-stainless-steel buildings filled with ridiculous — but modern! — inventions (a Tati specialty) in which they show far more interest than actual French culture; the famous landmarks that tourists should ostensibly be seeking out are glimpsed only in the reflections of swinging doors and passing windows. Having paid his homage to Chaplin and Keaton, Tati came fully into his own with this film, an awesome work of intricate choreography and hysterical tableaux. Like most geniuses, however, Tati was a tad insane — to create the modern version of Paris that he envisioned for Playtime, he spent six months constructing "Tativille," a highly detailed, modern, 1/5 scale business district. Between the sheer cost of production and schedule overruns, Playtime reportedly bankrupted him.

The Criterion Collection has reissued Playtime — which they previously released in 2001 but removed from their catalog about a year later — as an impressive two-disc set. The newly restored, high-def transfer offers a wider picture (1.85:1) than the previous, slightly cropped version, and the picture is mind-bogglingly good — stunningly crisp, clean and bright, with gorgeous color saturation (it's also a little over four minutes longer, with a few previously edited bits added back). The remastered stereo sound (in French or a dubbed "international soundtrack" created by Tati, with optional English subtitles) is equally good, very clean and clear, and creative in its use of stereo with sounds moving from one speaker to another as associated objects move across the screen. Disc One offers a "selected scene commentary" by film historian Peter Kemp, covering about 45 minutes of the film, and the video introduction by Terry Jones that appeared on the 2001 release. Disc Two offers the Tati short "Cours Du Soir" (1967), which also appeared on the earlier disc, in which Tati leads a group of avid students in lessons of comedy, including how to fall down, walk into a wall, and tumble down a staircase; a "making-of" featurette, "Au-delà de Playtime," with archival footage, including the building (and destruction) of Tativille (6 min.); "Tati Story," a very nice biography of Tati (20 min.); "Jacques Tati in Monsieur Hulot's Work," a 1976 episode of BBC's "Omnibus" on the director's comedies (49 min.); a audio interview with Tati, recorded at the film's 1972 debut at the San Francisco International Film Festival (17 min.); and an interview with Tati's script supervisor Sylvette Baudrot on her experiences working with the director (12 min.). The tri-fold case includes an essay by Chicago film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, tucked into a paperboard slipcase.
—Dawn Taylor

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