an international and interdisciplinary journal of postmodern cultural sound, text and image

 Volume 2, May 2005, ISSN 1552-5112





Social reality in Renoir’s Le crime de Monsieur Lange and in Tati’s Playtime



Remy Roussetzki



One need only leaf through the Cahiers du Cinéma to understand the decisive influence of Renoir's work on French cinema after World War II.  For instance, Truffaut said, "Renoir [was] the greatest director in the world;" Godard spoke of him as "the world finest technician after thirty years of improvisation."[1]  Very intent on protecting his individuality, Tati avoided the debates around cinema that raged during ‘The New Wave’; and so, we do not have such grand declaration of allegiance coming from him. [2]  One soon notices, however, that at a different point in time and in a world much changed, Tati’s work carries no less the memory of Renoir than do the movies made by his younger colleagues.  There are striking similarities between a Renoir of the mid 1930’s and a Tati of the late 60’s.  Let me add in first approximation that this connection has less to do perhaps with questions of techniques, themes and styles – although they are related -- than with the governing spirit of their works, the goal Renoir and Tati set to cinema, that of confronting social reality.


French society changed over that thirty year span and nothing gives, I believe, a  more accurate radiography of the change than two movies seen side by side: Le Crime (1935) and Playtime (1967).  Both Renoir and Tati shared the same concern for people in their mass, for groups in interrelation. In other words, they were intent on depicting the social body of the day.  But to film the crowd(s) in the adequate setting for cinematic pursuits required on their part daring inventiveness.  Both directors abandoned to a degree the narrative structures and characterization of mainstream cinema and gave importance to the set, whether it was the picturesque Parisian courtyard of dark façades and rounded pebbles or the brand new steel, plastic and glass construction Tati invested all his money in.[3]  Each in his own masterful and distinctive style reached an unprecedented level of freedom regarding technique (mise en scène, camera movements and editing) in order to expose collective problems.


Le Crime and Playtime bring history, social phenomena and class struggle at the center of the picture.  The way the characters -- if Mr. Hulot can still be called “a character,” he who does not seem to follow any purpose, except when he backs off from situations and disappears from the set – the way then the actors form groups and crowds and how these connect and disconnect with their background (the set, which ultimately expresses a vision of the land) presents in both films a country and a society in conflict.  When one leaves Le Crime and watches Playtime, however, the conflict shifts place.  The obstacle, the tension, the source of danger and anxiety between people, between people and their “reality” goes through a radical transformation in Playtime.  Whereas the opposition to the collective enterprise in Renoir comes from an exterior and unnatural danger in the person of the capitalist Batala, who has to be eliminated the grand old way, by a murder; in Tati the global dysfunctional set is meant to stay; and it does not give much leeway in terms of revolutionary epic. The obstacle now is the banal transparency against which French locals break their nose. The conflict is inside French territory in a very different way, more difficult to fight off than the misdemeanors of any class of individuals, however extreme their behavior.


We are going to look at the way social conflicts are represented in two separate films.  This comparison will measure what turns out to be the profound gulf between the world of before and that of after WWII in Europe.  My point is that, filming the onset of what we call today the global economy, Tati shows us something not yet present in Renoir; something we thought was reserved for Third World countries: colonization.  

 Let us then consider what the French call l’avant-guerre and l’après-guerre, starting with Renoir. 



Collective Improvisation


Attraction and repulsion between characters does not happen the way one might expect in Renoir, who likes to baffle expectations.  For instance, Renoir is the least interested in showing battle scenes of World War I in the war movie La Grande Illusion.[4] The war stays entirely off screen.  Disarmingly nonchalant in a loose story of evasion, honor, and a love encounter between a Parisian worker and a German peasant woman, Renoir focuses on class affinities that cut through nationalities. That is probably what the international public enjoyed in La Grande Illusion upon release in 1938.[5]  His narration made explicit, for instance, that the German commander (Rauffenstein) and the French aristocrat prisoner (Boeldieu) had a lot in common in terms of values and gentlemanly conduct: the self-consciousness of being the last specimen alive of an educated and refined dominant class; although they shared very little, and on exceptional occasions, with their respective soldiers.  Whether or not it was in the sphere of the mother tongue, down the hierarchy—people did not speak the same language.  The social structure is not a joke, even for Renoir.  Social frontiers and social miscommunications have little to do with customs.


This does not mean that in Renoir the limits of the land have no importance.  In Le Crime de Monsieur Lange, arch-enemy Batala, as well as good man Lange leave behind visible and invisible frontiers. To create Batala, Renoir lets improvisation exaggerate the wrong-doings of the traditional exploiter and capitalist who schemes, lies, hides from his creditors and seduces men as he does women.  There is perversity, even a tinge of the diabolical in Batala, who is sinking fast under his own schemes, until he leaves to avoid getting caught, and comes back.  Batala returns after a catastrophe we are told nobody survived.  His going in and out of France (and the world narrated) is shown by a camera montage as a superposition/confusion of fast-moving rails while a voice-over announces there was a train catastrophe.  This part of the movie is not clear and does not intend to be so.  Several months after reaching the northern frontier and committing there, we are to imagine, a monstrous crime, Batala is back on the scene.   He returns disguised in the black robe he stole from a priest who had traveled with him.  Is he also the cause of the derailment?  It is not impossible.  In the meantime, however, Mr. Lange and his friends have salvaged the publication house he had left bankrupt, and created a successful cooperative of workers.  When he understands that Batala intends to regain control of everything, Lange kills him, thereby committing what Renoir presents as a defendable crime.  Batala is the spoiler, the social parasite one finally crushes with pleasure.


Batala remains an outsider, and his difference is not a question of degree but of nature.  He is too dark, too reckless and immoral for the solid group of good-humored and hard-working blue-collar people who are now financed by a young and nonchalant aristocratic boss, Meunier junior.[6]  Batala is a foreign body in this social body. If he was not also a low-life fit for comedy and if he had wings to escape his mountains of debts, he could say with the Satan of John Milton “Which way I fly is Hell; myself am Hell.”  Batala is so much of a problem for the community -- no less for his seducing the women than for his robbing the men -- that he builds against himself a universal solidarity.  Killing him makes of Lange a popular hero (and we, the public, are to sympathize with Lange, of course).  But the presence, even when absent, of Batala is felt throughout the film.


Critics have raved about Jules Berry's performance.  André Bazin called it "a sublime creation of villainy".[7]  Alexander Sesonske wrote about "the richness of a character" he thinks is one of the best created by French cinema.[8]  The communist Renoir was, as director, more interested by the life of a character and the potential of an actor than by any strict political agenda, although we know that behind the film there was a group of supporters of the Front Populaire, then in full swing.  "If there was ever a film,” Sesonske wrote, “which was the collective work of a group, it was this one."  The result could have been some group manifesto, but according to Sesonske, "Renoir stubbornly refused to be wholly political... his film transcends the politics of the moment, for its characters represent more than just a clash of political ideas" (1980, 199). [9]  I agree; but would like to add that what Renoir wanted to show in the conflicts generated by Batala’s manipulations was not the “politics of the moment” – although it might have been that as well – but rather a long-standing underside of French society too shameful to be made explicit otherwise.  Renoir needed to add fateful undertones to his ambient realism, dark and floating contours that would be his narrative response to the year 1935, to the intense preparation for mass conflict; and Jules Berry provided.  The actor satisfied to the plot, the social sketch and the political message, and to some obscure presentiment, without for one second losing the caricature.


Around Jules Berry's performance it is worth insisting on the group production, the improvised mode Renoir and Jacques Prévert adopted while shooting.  "I am sure," confessed Renoir, "that it would be impossible in this film to know the origin of ideas, if it were Jacques or I who found this or that.  Practically, we found everything together."[10] This applies as well to Jules Berry's contribution, who at times, says Renoir, found his répliques "while Prévert and I were talking."  Notice how playfulness and invention stem  from group improvisation: "The film was shot in an atmosphere of amusing, bantering collaboration.  We were a group of buddies." Jules Berry's mesmerizing speeches are not read: Renoir said in an interview, "Prévert and I would give him his lines, but he always changed them as he spoke" (Sesonske 199).  Berry's best talks are casual serpentine flashes of words bordering on incoherence, though rarely without panache and seduction.  Alone on the evil side of things, Batala does not so much dialogue with the other characters as he bedazzles himself talking.  We sense that Batala discovers the next bit on the spot.  Jules Berry does.  Improvisation is perfectly adapted to a character that has got to get by at any cost.


 If Mr. Lange belongs to the working class, Batala is hard to situate in the class structure of France at the time (or any time). He is not an aristocrat, although it could be argued that the right he takes to seduce women had belonged long ago to the lords.[11] Nor does he come from decent bourgeoisie or working class, without mentioning the peasantry shown twice, in the Prologue and in the Epilogue, when one of the old men at the bar keeps repeating in his southern accent, “maybe he [Lange] killed un nuisible, a nuisance?”


For all its casualness, grounded as it is in working class attitudes, Le Crime revolves around tragic and fantastic events.  There is also a dash of the film noir, due to the gloomy courtyard.  It is a funny yet gothic tale of a comedy dealing with profound social and moral consequences.  More than one crime -- the one rational and realist committed by Lange following upon the other; the one mysteriously alluded to when Batala returns dressed in black -- make for a complex narrative.  Why this complexity?



The Funny Camera and the Set


One cannot seem to be finished with Batala.  One is powerless in front of him and submits defenselessly to his sordid tricks.  Batala is suave but vulgar and obscene. His irrational character embodies a low class type of intimidation and domination that Renoir probably feels is on the rise with fascism.  Once Batala is gone (apparently), the workers take over and create what Bazin calls a "communal paradise," and the young aristocrat Meunier junior bounces in to put his name on the social experience and exert a friendly supervision. Adding to the ease of transformation, it all happens around the burlesque project of a roman-photo, “Arizona Jim” (said with a French accent), proud product of the group.  The comedy can start.  Without Batala’s plundering, collective energies keep the publication house out of debts and thriving.  The magazine sells.  Populism à la Renoir did not mean the abrupt end of capital.  There is nothing wrong with money and, among gentlemen, no need for a revolution if it is not a peaceful one.


This said and “socialism” in place, Renoir is aware that “capitalist” pressures may come from abroad.  Lange wonders at some point if he should not ask first his comrades about a money offer to turn the roman-photo into a movie.  Would the others like the deal, though? Would the workers still control, as a cohesive group, a movie production that would have to be done, on top, in America?  Audiences here may laugh, but this is the type of questions that preoccupies Lange.  Lange is l'ange (the angel), of course, the innocent autodidact, the populist “artist.”  Lange takes off the working-class beret (Batala or Meunier junior wear felted hats) and scratches his head when he talks. He is a bit of a naïve on the outside and almost stupid in front of Batala; but his motivations are clear where the group is concerned.  He cares for social experiment more than he does for the success of his personal designs. Something liberating is in the cards when a collectivity goes to work in a human environment and under flexible rules. [12]


Long, apparently aimless takes and funny movements of the camera help Renoir create the required ambiance. The first shot of the movie shows a car on its way to the frontier, following the meandering curves of a narrow road at night. The car’s front lights illuminate trees straight ahead at an unexpected angle.  What we see of the road is not exactly what the driver would have seen, unless he were himself the machine.  Fixed to the roof and looking up, the camera does not provide a subjective shot but a puppet-like perspective; mechanical and funny. As a fleeting part of a narrative that is still to come, the handling of this first shot may escape the spectator. Blatantly overlooking state justice, Meunier junior drives Valentine and Lange to the Café Hôtel de la Frontière.  Batala could not leave after all; Lange can.  So, that first shot bears Renoir’s signature, even before we are aware of it.  Renoir is already playing tricks with the camera while his characters are playing tricks with the law and escaping.  Le Crime opens with a cinematic joke; and the fanfare music in the soundtrack confirms this interpretation. 


Is there often a link between part of the setting gaining independence and playfulness in the movements of the camera?  There is something detached and carefree in the long takes that contribute to the nonchalance we find so specific of Renoir's style, his casual way of telling a story.  It soon becomes apparent to the viewer that the apparatus plays its own game to express joy and freedom.  But the independent camera can also elicit anxiety.  This is the case at the climax of the movie, when in the dark of night Lange kills Batala.  Fixed at the center of the now empty courtyard, the camera seems to rapidly but aimlessly wander over ominous façades and closed windows—so rapidly that it produces the sensation of vertigo. That the entire story is occurring in one building is a dramatic device that gives strong unity to the film; but it also dictates conditions to the shooting.  Renoir’s shots are never aimless, in fact, and less than any, the sequence ending with Batala grimacing at his own blood.[13]  Renoir’s longest shot is taken from the geometrical center of his set.  It is a 360º degree pan shot during which the camera follows Lange as he walks down the stairway, then seems to forget him and proceeds full circle with nobody in the screen but the courtyard, to finally recapture Lange in extremis, his gun pressed against Batala.  This sweeping move is unsettling; it looses the viewer for what is felt as a stretch of time and that is what Renoir needs at this juncture.


The movie plays with circularity on many levels. The choreography of actors, the way the team of Lange’s friends crowds in and out of the screen follows circular patterns.  The film starts at the end of the story and ends the way it started, Valentine recounting the circumstances of the crime to let “us,” the public, along with the country folks at the Café, judge Lange and come to our final verdict while he sleeps.  Also, it could be added that the circular shot acquaints us with Lange and “Arizona Jim” for the first time when the camera, forgetful of the actor, but not of his character, travels over the four walls of his modest bedroom, the map of America, the circle inscribed on that map indicating the territory of Arizona -- imaginary territory, of course.  Arizona is not a fanciful circle going over Mexico's border like that, is it?  The camera has just gone on a tangent the way Lange goes off mimicking gallop and with the same sense of freedom.


Here is another case where the shot does not go straight to the point, but takes a circuitous route.  Just before we meet Lange and Valentine in bed, their passion ready to bloom now that Batala is gone, we see anonymous people walk out of the fateful train, as though the crowd of regular folks were closing ranks over his absence.  For long seconds, it seems again that the eye of the camera goes adrift, vagabond among the crowd, forgetting the story; but it is in effect taking care of the coup de théâtre and turning point of the movie.  An announcement of the train catastrophe is heard over a radio someone carries in the train station; then, the voice comes out of open windows in the courtyard; and finally, it is heard in the bedroom where, later, Lange will give up thinking about the fateful news and will switch off the light at his lover’s request.  But first, the camera proceeds in the dark of the bedroom, panning walls, photos and furniture, before coming to a full stop in front of another radio.  The wandering camera has gone into a loop, from radio to radio.  Maybe it ended up quoting itself the way so many shots in the future New Wave will do?


More than one sequence indeed predates the kind of cinéma vérité where improvised ways to carry the camera will bring fragility and freshness to the picture.[14]  This one starts straight up on a wide view of the sky of Paris, then tilts somewhat shakily, from the top down the bottom of the Arc-de-Triomphe, tracking at high speed (from the back of a car) a young man on a bicycle who drives down the Champs-Elysées, rejoicing with masculine bravura.  We know the man and understand his happiness: he is the lover of the modest laundress who was seduced by Batala and gave birth to a still-born child.  Without jalousie, without the slightest reproach, he has pardoned the laundress. Batala presumed dead, tolerance shines no less than productivity. In this rapid tilt from the sky then, Renoir expresses how open (sky open) are the feelings of the young man; how easy is love among popular folks.  On par with that of the end, on the beach, the final crossing over the frontier, the leaving the country at dawn, this is one of the rare long shots taken outside and in broad daylight.



Different Crowds


As a metaphor of liberation, Lange and his friends rip apart the wall of publicity for the stale magazine owned by Batala, opening a window so that the same young lover of the tilt shot may look outside and receive the laundress.  As one route that the camera follows in her free moments, the connection inside/outside is essential.  Outside, groups gathered in the courtyard are seen through openings in the building.  Indoors shots make use of the depth of field during the long takes where figurants mingle with each other through a defile of rooms, allowing principal actors to come to the fore and speak their mind. [15]  


The complex choreography this program imposed on Renoir did not go without defects, however.  To improvise and not cut while handling groups of actors going through series of encounters is no easy task.  There is a commotion not accounted for perhaps in the frigid scene that shows us the team taking photos for the novella.  When Lange moves to the fore, his lover, Valentine, sort of disappears behind; and it occurs while the screen is busy with costumed cowboys.[16]  After that, a boisterous feast starts, unanimous (but for one) celebration.  Meunier, next to the old concierge and the newly formed couples sings Christmas songs.  Playfulness is everywhere.  If we were watching just another comedy, this scene would correspond to the conclusion.  We notice how the camera cannot frame enough people.  The screen bursts with participants.  When there is gathering in Le Crime, the shot is crammed with actors, leaving no space between individuals, no distance between background and foreground.  So compact is the pack, individuals disappear and hide each other.  


This kind of commotion does not occur in Playtime, although more people and many more objects occupy the wide screen favored by Tati.  People are not pressed but scattered; objects randomly meet on a screen in which they float and in a set that in any case encompasses them.  Building on the tradition of Renoir’s long takes, Tati takes advantage of the brand new 70 mm color film technology.  Instead of the coming together as a group, we witness the desultoriness that comes with gatherings of strangers and, therefore, the formation of a very different crowd.  Tati uses a deep space type of mise en scène, shot in deep focus, his camera high enough on a crane to dominate and keep in perspective a large space, several planes where occur not one, but multiple actions that may not even have to know each other.[17]  Interaction between actors is now far from necessary. 


How physically unified was the crowd in Renoir!  His frame was perhaps bursting, one row of heads might be seen from behind, half a face would appear in a corner; and still, only one familiar group occupied the shot.  On the contrary, in Tati foreground action and background action do not know each other, nor do left and right: some actors may dance while others eat, some laugh while other cry.  Something has occurred to the living space where men and women meet (and don’t) in France.  For one thing, now they literally do not speak the same language.  Lost in the large screen, the spectator’s gaze is supposed to leap over embryonic stories and evanescent interactions that develop among individuals, themselves lost in a foreign environment.  The idea is that this world has become too much (too diverse, too confusing and conflicted) to be taken in at once by any given person.  Tati invents a disconnected composition to film, not of one story; but at best what ends looking like an invasion by a polyglot crowd having no limit in terms of money and decided to make of this night the playtime of their lives.  The party roars in crescendo, leaving no piece of the set intact, until at the end, it feels as though a cyclone has just gone through the land.


You might wonder if all of this is not merely French and suspect that I see connections -- the theme of celebration, social gatherings around food and drinks -- that belong to a culture and many films.  But what strikes me is how different Renoir’s party is from that of Tati.  It is no longer the utopian source of a happiness uniting all classes (except for one parasite).  In Tati’s nightclub, the French waiters, workers and their bosses are in the kitchen and behind the bar, cooking, fixing the set, swearing and sweating to keep up with the appearance of a chic dinner-party, even as it progresses into a universal brawl.  Saving on work and extracting the usual revenge of the “exploited” and the “colonized,” they serve all night the same cold fish flambé to successive American, Japanese and Scandinavian couples.  And the cosmopolitan soundtrack (Brazilian band, Rock n' Roll) only makes their de facto colonization more attractive.  In the year 1967, France is a playground and a colony, Tati declares in his tongue-in-cheek kind of way, half comical and sarcastic, half dead serious.  The foreigner is (in) our walls.  The stranger is nobody else than an impeccable urban set, its servants and its customers.  It is Tativille itself, perfect environment built for the enjoyment of a crowd of expatriates who revolve beyond boundaries.  Unless one considers that Tativille is very much at home and it is “we,” the French workers, who have been displaced.


At dawn, some among the revelers ask beret-bearer locals who seem to have been imported for the occasion, to smile and look “local” while they take photos.  As the poignant tune of a folkloric accordion ends, we see these regular Parisian people behind their counters, in "cute" little shops, ready to serve.  France and its people, its buildings and streets, its marvelous food, including its pleasant dialect of an idiom, have turned into nostalgic images of themselves.  One appreciates the local aspect and the picturesque precisely when localities and the sense of belonging to the land are no longer available. 


It is sad to see a nation go under, France becoming “dated" as soon as a crowd of tourists is introduced; a crowd that behaves upon landing at the airport as though it owned everything (and maybe it does), until at the end it gets back to the same airport, thanks to the endless circling of a burlesque and absurd traffic jam.  Tati also liked to go in circles. 



The Autonomous Set


Straight on the collective, in Renoir the camera erased the expected hierarchy between principal and secondary characters.  But Renoir would still have close ups of Meunier or Batala.  When dialogue developed, he did not use the shot/reverse-shots type of editing technique: everybody stayed rigidly in place as the scene started in plan-sequence, then moved, without cuts, to close-ups. The process is completed by Tati, whose camera dominates populated space and does away with close-ups. Understandably so: interactions between principal characters did not interest him; he filmed the chance-encounters of individuals mingling in crowds.  Mr. Hulot is not a protagonist having any kind of definite intentions as neither intrigue nor overall plot develops in Playtime.  Unless we accept the snapping conclusion of many brutal gags as such, there are no coup de théâtre either.  Whereas Mr. Lange was a timid whose facial expression could be picked up by the camera to show us what he nonetheless fought for, Mr. Hulot stumbles along from one painful encounter to another. His presence certainly provides a thread between situations, but his (re)actions appear unmotivated.  More accurately, his one motivation -- noticeable in the body movements as a whole -- is avoidance.[18]  Mr. Hulot is in constant retreat.  While strolling in the street, for instance, he finds himself engaged, hugged and then dragged into the discothèque by an old acquaintance who insists on recognizing him (he does not) from the time of their military service. Thus starts the “central” scene of the party.


 “In his nondramatized and loitering cinema,” Michel Chion writes, “in a general shot which he makes his own, Tati spreads out the signs, gags and characters over the surface of the screen without hierarchy”.   He films the indefinite, un-centered social fabric of the 60’s, showing how adept it is at making itself look cool and egalitarian and free, when it is implicitly divided and ridiculously dependent on commercial objects.  On top of his not organizing the transitions between scenes around the motivating principle of a plot, Tati bewilders the audience with jump shots and the discontinuity of angles.  He shoots a scene from wherever he can get the deepest perspective on as many layers of action as possible.  We recognize certain faces in the crowd after a while and there is a powerful sense of unity coming from the distant, dominant camera; and, as in Renoir, from the set.


That the environment may live a life on its own is a trait enormously magnified in Playtime.  An array of fixtures, utensils, gadgets in the background of urban life never end playing tricks on Mr. Hulot, whose allergic attitude makes perfect sense given that he cannot touch any part of the set without triggering a catastrophic chain reaction.  Once in the nightclub, we witness the growing misdemeanor of a “design" but makeshift decor that functions too well and backfires, disrupts individual pursuits as an obstacle can send particles off trajectory, robbing eventual characters of their motivations as soon as they are born.  If in the office tower during the first part of the movie, the camera focuses on nondescript partitions, switchboards and silent doors as they interrupt the course of activities and give pretext to failures and misunderstandings; in the second part at the nightclub, Tati tells the convoluted stories of how a destroyed knob or bulb, how a piece of the ceiling changed the way people meet, if they ever do.  In the airport which is so clean that it looks like a clinic, Mr. Hulot spends what feels like an eternity trying to meet with someone he sees in reflections, a man who finally breaks his nose on a transparent door at the moment of salutation.  Already, the old doorman who was to introduce Mr. Hulot looked overwhelmed by the speaking-machine attached to a blinking switchboard he had to activate.  The set has turned into the principal actor and it is a brutal, inhuman, sadistic player whose tribulations unfold the only "story" you will find in Playtime.


Other movies during the 60’s would to some extent expose this fascinating and frightening vision of an impeccable, aseptic, automatic, yet senseless and overall fragile, in a word, destructive environment.  An ultra-modern and, before the word was even coined, a global set plays an important role in Truffaut's Fahrenheit 451, for instance.  However, Tati’s tour de force consists in avoiding the creation of a fantasy-world, of a science-fiction.  Playtime responds to the social struggle generated by the onset of globalization.  Tati takes the pulse of a new wave indeed, of a new reality: the sudden waking up of France and Europe after the war with a chilling discovery, that of finding itself irreversibly immersed in a world whose center is elsewhere.  Dependence, power and manipulation have shifted since Le Crime.  The class structure has changed, while social difference stays at the center of the picture.  Society is perceived as antagonistic in another way.  Now it is reality as such, man made historic and social reality -- buildings, cars, signs, words -- that inside France escapes France’s boundaries and taxes its energies.  As though the abuse was perpetrated by a virus lodged, not outside but at the core, international reality engulfs a land in a dynamic on which nationals have zero control.  Frederic Jameson stated some time ago: "We will be unable to insert ourselves, as individual subjects, into an ever more massive and impersonal or transpersonal reality."[19]  That inability is already what the nasty jokes in Playtime demonstrate.


No matter how “impersonal” modern reality may be, it remains, however, a matter of belief and consensus, as is any social reality.  Fact and fiction, reality and appearance are not opposed to each other here.  A remaining doorknob can take care of an absent door as long as the usher and the client for whom he opens with just the knob in hand act as though the nightclub had a beautiful glass door.  Tati could be thought to have a higher esteem for the usher who fools the client than for the client who is (wants to be?) fooled; although what such gags make plain is a complicated interrelation where as long as, on either side, each believes the other believes in the chic of the club, then it is business as usual.  Props function on stage because the public wants to believe in them; and so do the complicated objects whose directions we follow in what we call our “real life.”  In truth, the international crowd is no less the dupe, no less alienated and cheated of reality, than the French crowd is.  To start with, the tourists never even get in touch with the reality of the city, never come in contact with the old stones, the famous sights.  They glimpse at the Eiffel Tower and the Arc-de-Triomphe through reflections on vast window panes.  As I said earlier, “true” Paris is a nostalgic phantom.  From now on, “authentic” Paris will exist and survive and be cherished perhaps more than ever, but in reproduction, a stereotype, a hyperreal image of itself.


During the party, the cool nonchalance à la Meunier junior becomes universal, but under a twisted and false version. This is clear in the use of the informal "tu" in French: the French camp still knows hierarchy, e.g. management vs. waiters -- but it is denied in the “tu” which peppers the looseness of the 60’s on all relations; as well as, for instance, in the ugly generosity of the American stock-broker who, pretending at some point in the night to own a destroyed section of the discothèque, invites the French workers at his table and taps them on the back.  No better way to make them stronger than to conceal differences in the social body under some vague posturing at “we are all the same.”[20]  Bad communication and worse: false communication is the proven result, according to Tati.  In this architecture where transparency dominates, where the interior of living rooms and bedrooms is seen from the street, where the separation between public and private spaces seems obsolete, what separates one from one's neighbor is a panoramic, extra-clean, invisible window-pane.  It is modern openness that brings about non-communication.  Or maybe it is the reverse: the hard fact that nobody communicates is concealed by the claim, the ideology, the appearance of transparency. 


In Playtime, many overlapping dialogues amount to not having any dialogue.  The set, however, does make itself heard.  Dysfunctional things emit an endless music of concrete sounds.  Instead of characterization, psychology of characters, lines in the mouth of Hulot and his chance acquaintances, we have passing remarks, confusing mumble-jumble, jokes in Franglish.  Instead of a course of action, we hear an ambient brouhaha, funny interjections and statistical noise.  Considerate human interactions are beyond the reach of this overdeveloped world, except perhaps when it comes to the little bit of individualized attention Mr. Hulot finally lavishes on a young American woman we remember for the color of her dress.  Hulot’s gift of a scarf at the end (object which he does not succeed to give in person) is like the token of an ancient tradition between men and women that survives, quite to our surprise – a touch of grace, a miracle. There is desire, even if it did not go anywhere.  The problem could not be with sex, for Tati is not scared to film obscene gestures; but with the expression of feelings. Tenderness, affection is almost unimaginable in Playtime, where love is a thing of the past or of an improbable future. 


The hyperreal dominance of American-English on French territory generates most of the puns in the half-audible and not-meant-to-be-understood mixture that fills the soundtrack.  Even if it is anxiety-provoking for an audience (French or otherwise) not to understand what goes on in a film, Tati is coherent in this respect.  When voices spend time translating what they just said, it complicates the regular run of things and renders communication the more difficult. The half-comprehensible brouhaha is in keeping with the Bauhaus aesthetics of armchairs that respond noisily to your body, the silent doors that shut in your face when they want.  Again, the source of conflict is now to be found not between the social classes of a given community but, more radically I think, between crowded individuals and the superior, though trivial, modernity that surrounds them.  One cannot eliminate this strange reality the way Lange killed Batala.  Tati’s set is in hyperspace.[21]  It is neither simply an object nor a human subject.  It may look phony and artificial but it is not an artifice that could be removed the way one removed (or at least dreamt of removing) a social nuisance. This nasty real is the place where neo-servants and neo-masters, local and international crowds, enter (or not) in contact.  If the effect is comic in that we do laugh at the painful results, it is not human enough to give rise to comedy.[22]  Nor does it allow for fantastic disappearances and tragic returns.  People now hurt themselves on a pervasive but elusive form of power, which like Proteus has no face, and many.[23]  Tati turns his back on the genres that individualized conflicts, which does not mean that he eliminates violence and the jouissance, the intense relief that comes with it.  To facilitate (and witness, in our case) the destruction of the set is actually the one great pleasure left to individuals.  Although it is a defensive, reactive, aimless violence and not a political act, not a revolutionary program nor liberation, it does procure relief.


Playtime gets funnier as the night proceeds and more drunkards describe elaborate arabesques through the broken doors of the dilapidated disco.  When someone falls at the bar, the high stool he sat on is turned upside down like some ready-made by Duchamp, so he can stand protected inside.  The big brassy knob of a glass-door Hulot bumped his head into while trying to shake hands with the usher, later serves that same usher to create the make-believe door, and then it is recycled as a recipient for tips.  Where the “system” breaks down, Tati shows that a small space for human invention can be created.  Once the ceiling has fallen apart and the hired band is gone, people gather, as they do after a disaster, in pockets of conviviality.  Hulot’s American friend improvises on the piano; a woman sings exactly like French people sang once upon a time, in the pre-war days.  We are touched (at least I am) because we know it is passé.  Revolution, liberation in common is not an option; but unlimited consumption and the useless and piecemeal destruction of what destroys you as a whole and one by one is still possible.  No doubt that, in Tati, there is something like an aesthetics of implosion and more than one glimpse at a catastrophic beauty.  One cannot avoid and refuse the new.  One has to embrace even the inhuman, he says.  That is what makes of him a master at filming the violence of our present world. 




an international and interdisciplinary journal of postmodern cultural sound, text and image

 Volume 2, May 2005, ISSN 1552-5112



[1]  François Truffaut, The Films in My Life (New York: Da Capo Press, 1994), 36.  Godard's admiration is expressed in Godard on Godard (New York: The Viking Press, 1972), 64.


[2]  Older than Truffaut, Godard, Chabrol or Malle, and coming to cinema from a very different background, Tati did not integrate the movement called La Nouvelle Vague.  See,  David Bellos, Jacques Tati (London: Harvill Press, 1999), 202.


[3]  Taking from the most recent trends in architecture and urbanism, the small city of Tativille was built just on the outskirt of Paris. It was a marvel of modernity to look at, although it was also a complete disaster for Tati financially. Tativille was so up-to-date a real set that he had counted on selling it for actual use by corporations after the shooting. Suddenly, the government decided it was in the way of Paris future belt-highway, and so, Tativille was destroyed (Bellos 246).


[4]  Bordwell and Thompson, Film Art: An Introduction (New York: Mc Graw-Hill, 1993), 228.


[5]  The film earned Jean Renoir enormous acclaim in the United States; it ran for 26 weeks in New York after its opening in September 1938.


[6]  Meunier junior has the snobbish and carefree attitude that comes from belonging to the French aristocracy. He is not in awe of republican codes and scorns state justice.  Meunier is an evolved descendant of Boeldieu and Rauffenstein.  Having no longer any dominant role to play in a bourgeois society, the nobility may as well embrace the progressive cause of working people.  Here Meunier does so for the honor of the group, basic motivation in Lange's murder.



[7]  André Bazin, Jean Renoir (New-York: Da Capo Press, 1992), 46.


[8]  Sesonske, Jean Renoir (Boston: Harvard U. Press, 1980),189.


[9]  The political group to which Renoir belonged was called Le Groupe Octobre.  With Jacques Prévert, whose help was asked again after a first treatment of Le Crime, the group had already shot a film in 1932: L'Affaire Est Dans le Sac. See, Célia Bertin's Jean Renoir (Baltimore: John Hopkins U. Press, 1991),112.


[10]  Renoir, Renoir on Renoir, trans. by Carol Volk (Boston: Cambridge U. Press, 1989), 227.


[11]  I am referring to le droit de cuissage, the right for an aristocrat to force intercourse on a woman before the wedding, a right that was of course more symbolic than any thing else by the late eighteenth century; and yet, a right that, among many examples, the Count in Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro still flaunts and, with him,  all the tyrannical characters the hero has to circumvent before he gets married in traditional comedies.  Batala is a remote descendant of the obscene father figure who lords over the women.


[12]  There is implicit here a Marxist tenet about the virtues of working-class productivity.  How creative we would all be if we were left free as workers to organize our own work.  The experience of the cooperative has to be placed in utopia though, among other humanist dreams.  The movie tells us so.  The team that produces the film and in the film the team that produces “Arizona Jim” follow a late version of the saying one reads in Rabelais’ Gargantua: Fay ce que voudras, do as you please.  But Renoir’s story has obscure contours; it also tells us that the experiment is short lived.  When Batala comes back, violence is unavoidable.


[13]  Bazin explained how important the form of that courtyard was for the narration: "In this vast complex, each important part of the set (the concierge's lodge, the laundry, the big stairway, the composing room, Batala's office) occupied its actual position around the courtyard, whose center became the geometric locus for all the action.  A significant detail added to this geometric conception: the concentric pattern of the paving stones in the courtyard" (1992, 45). 


[14]  I am thinking in particular about Godard’s A Bout de Souffle or Pierrot le Fou.


[15]   Renoir once explained: "It is an attempt at camera movements uniting both what's happening in life, in the background action, and what's happening in the mind of the actors in the foreground.  This corresponds to the idea I spend my time trying to perfect, of not cutting the scenes and allowing the actors to follow their sequence” (Renoir 227).


[16]   I speculate that here Renoir’s camera gives a shot of a dated shot: Lange complains about the "toiles peintes," the painted backgrounds he has to work with when he takes his photos.  Photo-novellas were something popular for Renoir, this time in the sense of easily-done, cheap, obsolete in relation to the nimble camera.  A comic interruption to photo-taking has to do with a fly someone pursues and catches.  The tableau of actors remaining stiff meanwhile gives the sense of a frozen technique; and the comment, afterwards, is hilarious: "Nobody was natural, we should do the shot again."  They certainly looked natural in their Arizona boots!  


[17]  The advantage of the wide screen is that “instead of using the traditional shot and counter-shot editing technique to show two cowboys walking towards each other down the dusty main street of a lonesome desert town, you can show both of them together in a single long shot on a very wide screen.  By the same token, takes can last longer, since there is more information available [on a 70 mm film than on the regular 35 mm], and more going on for the spectator to recognize and absorb. Such a style of predominantly long shots, with long takes and more than one thing happening on the screen, is entirely characteristic of Tati’s work from the start. Wide screen technology seems to have been invented for him” (Bellos 258).  


[18]  Michel Chion writes in The Films of Jacques Tati, “Tati’s films tell stories of avoidance” (Toronto: Guernica, 1997), 94.  Tati himself performs the part of Mr. Hulot not as an actor would, but as a mime.  Tati started his career as a mime and never deviated.


[19]  Signatures of the Visible (New York: Routledge, 1992), 54.


[20]  If Meunier was nonchalant, he maintained his difference (from the bourgeois and from the workers); he was not covering it up as the rich Texan does, somewhat nervously.


[21]  I freely borrow from the notion of hyperreality that Jean Baudrillard developed in the 70’s and 80’s.  See, for instance, Simulacres et Simulation (Paris: Galilée, 1981).


[22]  Comedy requires unanimous enjoyment, traditionally at the expense of one (the tyrant, the father, the exploiter).  Tati was quite aware of the distinction between the comic and comedy.  See , Chion (30).


[23]  Hulot cannot leave the store in time and give in person the scarf to his American friend because an employee in the store enforces the “proper” behavior for a client to first pass through a turnstile, which is jammed.  One does not understand the situation if one stays with the fact that this turnstile is a useless impediment and its presence absurd, since there is ample space to go around.  Whether you are an employee, a client or the boss, everybody has to respect the set.  It is the new god whose inflexibility, dead-seriousness and importance render this situation comic.