Playtime

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This Parisian klutz may be just what the doctor ordered.

The Film: Jacque Tati’s reconciliation with a contemporary Paris

The Potable: One bottle of 2014 Greystone cabernet, with a second on standby

The night after an exhausting election was finalized, I sat down for 1967’s Playtime. Was this really what I wanted to watch? A French (eyeroll) film about modernity (eyeroll) starring a French mime (eyeroll groan)? To my surprise, it turned out to be exactly what I needed.

It starts off admittedly slow. A variety of people arrive at an airport, but not in the warm, festive way of, say, Love Actually. There is no hugging, no Beach Boys song, and no splendid Hugh Grant narration. Instead we have a group of nuns and American tourists who shuffle along a grim, brutalist corridor. No music, no dialogue. Paris may be the City of Lights, but God forbid you travel through Charles de Gaulle International to get there.

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I was immediately bored. But soon after, the film offers something unexpected. Our protagonist, adrift in a state-of-the-art office building, takes a seat in a waiting room chair, only to have it emit an embarrassing, shall we say, “toot” sound. Distracted by the election, but already a little buzzed on Greystone, I allowed myself a chuckle. A second man enters the scene and sits in an identical chair. It toots like the first, and as each man adjusts his posture, the toots are thusly exchanged.

My interest, I confess, was piqued.

Unfortunately, it gets dull again for awhile as the mime goes to a housekeeping expo. I don’t plan on buying any of the featured equipment, I already own a vacuum cleaner, and I’m unsure why Tati felt the need to include this scene. Reviewers criticized Skyfall for relying too heavily on product placement, but James Bond never went dresser shopping at an IKEA.

Later, the mime stumbles across a modern apartment building, the residents sitting in their identical boxes watching their identical televisions. It’s a nice bit of metacommentary that I’m at home doing the same, I get it, modernity is soul-crushing and my couch is comfortable and what a shame but for God’s sake what difference does it make when you’re entire country is on the line?

But just as I was prepared to curl into a ball, Playtime takes a turn. This is no ordinary night in the Parisian outskirts. Tonight there is an event! The grand opening of the nicest Ruby Tuesday’s I’ve ever seen! In typical fashion, everything must be perfect, but this stuffy affair is undercut by every error you could imagine.

As a jazz band plays, revelers dance across a floor and drag a tile loose. A doorman, left with a shattered glass door, makes do with the oversized handle. A chunk of decorative ceiling collapses. French construction firms are among the worst in the world.

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The wire chairs brand the patrons like cattle. A seabass, order table 1, is cooked tableside by no less than three chefs, all confused as to who’s in charge. Another waiter, abandoned on the balcony, trades his uniform one piece at a time to his down-and-out peers. A bow tie falls in the sauce? Talk to Greg. Jacket catches fire? Go see Greg.

The house band leaves, in all probability worried about asbestos, but the customers take its place.

The ruined section of restaurant is turned into a makeshift VIP area.

Light fixtures burn out, but it was too hot in there, anyway.

In the morning, once the dust settles, the city is shown in a whole new light. Gone are the grim grays and greens, replaced by roundabouts filled with technicolor Peugeots and pedestrians with early morning McGriddles. Strangers one day before, the partygoers nod to one another on the street. Others shop or order coffee together. Is there an orange asshole flying into that airport, screaming about Muslims? Of course. Marine Le Pen. But for one morning at least, people were drawn a little closer after sharing one incredibly bizarre night together.

Verdict: sick to my stomach but that’s not Tati or the wine’s fault.

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