Truffaut called it "a film from another planet," but that's not exactly right. Playtime is surely about our world. It's the filmmaker, bemused yet sympathetic, who seems to have popped in from a neighboring solar system.
Jacques Tati took three years to shoot his 1967 masterpiece, storied among cinephiles. Like Welles' The Magnificent Ambersons and von Stroheim's Greed, it was notoriously butchered (by Tati himself, fighting the financial ruin the film's production eventuated) and unavailable for decades. Now partly restored, and looking and sounding great, this one-of-a-kind film is full of pleasures and astonishments.
Tati built his career on his alter ego, Monsieur Hulot, a dreamy, curious figure with a pipe, crumpled hat and baggy overcoat whose mostly dialogueless peregrinations gently highlighted the foibles of his fellow humans. But Playtime breaks with Mr. Hulot's Holiday (1953) and Mon oncle ('58): Hulot isn't the hero, but rather one figure in a much grander vision, tracing an essentially plotless day with a group of American female tourists jaunting through Paris.
Indeed, Tati, who originally shot the film in 70 mm on monstrous custom-made sets, literally provides the big picture: whole floors of office buildings, entire city intersections, and the chic (yet just barely newly renovated) supper club where most of the film's second half takes place, culminating in a wild party. There's not a closeup in the film, and scarcely a medium shot. Most of the dialogue is incidental chatter. Playtime, perhaps cinema's most intellectual physical comedy, is about how people move, gesture and interact in groups, and in different environments.
Tati's chief target is the modern built landscape -- soulless, sterile, rectilinear -- that turns people into drones. He's showing us ourselves, as effectively as might a disinterested intergalactic visitor, albeit one who loves whimsical sight gags (traffic circle becomes carousel) and comically rude noises. But the satire, which encompasses consumerism, office life and mod furniture as well as tourism and modernist architecture, is gentle and humane, focussed by Tati's marvelous pantomime and even better choreography of crowds.
Playtime's vision is so radically democratic that not only does it lack a main character, it even largely dispenses with the cinematic conventions of foreground, middle ground and background, and of instructing us what we're supposed to look at in its wide-angle shots. Tati even refuses to fulfill your expectation that a stocky, loudmouthed tourist is an ugly American: The blustery businessman instead becomes the star of the supper-club party, Hulot's implicit accomplice in transforming mayhem into joy. Then, just as abruptly the Yank vanishes, darting from the foreground of a shot into a cab in its background, another beautiful Tati touch. Even when it's not laugh-out-loud funny, the humanity of Playtime's humor linger like streetlamps kept lit past dawn. In French and English.