Criterion // 1967 // 124 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge William Lee // August 18th, 2009
An epic work of subtle comedy.
Jacques Tati's Playtime appears again courtesy of the Criterion Collection -- this time replicating the movie and supplemental material from their 2006 two-disc edition on a single Blu-Ray Disc. The content being equal, is the high definition treatment enough reason to warrant an upgrade? In a word: Oui.
French mime-filmmaker Jacques Tati's iconic character Monsieur Hulot goes to Paris for a business meeting. He's just one character going about his business in the modern city. The other people we observe include: an American tourist named Barbara, Hulot's numerous army buddies, the wait staff at a new, fancy restaurant and the various workers in their office cubicles, to name just a few. The other important character in the movie is the city itself. Clean in appearance, efficient in its layout, cold but functional in its architecture, this is the modern city in fantastical abstraction. The physical manifestation of this city is so pure to the idea of modernism that Tati had a neighborhood (nicknamed "Tativille") constructed for the film. Now watch as people go about their day. See the patterns of their movements, their awareness of each other, their complex rituals and other peculiarities of their lives. Observe as they overcome their barriers and interact with each other.
My first time seeing Playtime was on DVD during a film studies class in university. As required for the class, we re-watched portions of the movie with an eye to scholarly analysis and it was quite enlightening to hear others point out details and make connections I had missed. Re-watching it on Criterion's new Blu-ray edition, I was happy to find myself smiling at many familiar scenes and laughing at plenty of subtle gags -- I fully expected some of them and had forgotten others. Best of all, the excellent Blu-ray transfer let me discover entirely new details in the precisely composed shots. The movie holds up on repeat viewings but on Blu-ray it was like seeing it new again.
Much has been written about this colossal production that bankrupted its creator. Readers will find Judge Mike Pinsky's excellent review of the 2006 two-disc DVD -- identical in content to this Blu-ray edition -- loaded with information on the production's history as well as a detailed rundown of the bonus content. Allow me, then, to get straight to the point: Admirers of the film should not hesitate to replace their DVD version with this Blu-ray edition.
The evidence isn't good at the movie's start. The opening title screens are rough as the print source is heavily damaged. This brief section is presented in a window-boxed format and the black bands on all four sides of the image appear to isolate this footage from the good stuff that's to come. Once the movie proper begins, the difference in visual quality is striking. The image is exceptionally clean and stable without any sign of physical imperfections. There is a very modest amount of fine grain that can be seen on larger patches of bright color. The deep black levels provide a good contrast in the nighttime scenes appropriate to the precise compositions. The edge enhancement halo that was minimally visible on DVD is gone entirely from all but a few scenes.
The dominant visual motif of Playtime is the grid pattern. Precisely defined parallel verticals and horizontals are present everywhere from the façade of buildings, to the interior flooring, and even to the way people move. The high definition image makes these fine line details sharp and crystal clear. Looking down a long corridor, every feature that defines it seems to be in sharp focus. Whereas the pattern of Hulot's raincoat was only suggested before, now you can clearly see that the grid pattern is deliberately reinforced in his clothing. The entire movie is photographed in medium and wide shots and the added resolution really invites the viewer to take in each scene and find new details in the corners of the frame.
The movie's color palette is intentionally restricted to neutral territory. The blandness of grey is the point. Consequently, the added boldness of the grey tones isn't going to make a big impression. However, the textures of surfaces on buildings and roads as well as clothing are very nicely rendered. In the nighttime scenes, the vibrancy of neon signs brings a welcome splash of color to the monochrome city.
The two audio mixes on this disc are the same ones provided for Criterion's previous DVD release with one notable improvement: The original French soundtrack is presented in uncompressed PCM stereo. It is a very pleasing audio track that sounds richer than I've previously heard. The second audio option is the "international" soundtrack presented in Dolby Digital stereo that is also quite good but compared to the PCM track it has a tinnier, colder quality. The international track was made to include more English dialogue and some of the audio from public announcements and television sets is re-recorded with less Parisian inflection, but the differences between the two audio tracks is pretty minor. Since dialogue was not a focus for the soundtrack, actors' voices often come across in a mumble. The heart of the sound design -- the noises of the city, the footsteps on different surfaces, the sound effects as people interact with their surroundings -- is strongly featured on both soundtracks.
The supplemental material from the two-disc DVD set is condensed onto a single Blu-ray disc and nothing is sacrificed. Even the liner notes with an essay by critic Jonathan Rosenbaum are reproduced here in a slightly smaller insert that fits the box. The selected scene commentaries by Philip Kemp do not branch from the actual movie but instead play the clips in 1080i resolution to accompany his comments. Again, I will refer readers to the DVD Verdict review of the Criterion DVD for a detailed rundown of the extras. The main thing to note is that everything from that two-disc DVD is ported to this Blu-ray.
An excellent DVD edition is now an excellent Blu-ray edition, so it really is unnecessary for me to ask for more. However, the one thing missing from this fine Criterion title is an artifact from its original marketing. Considering how this was the most expensive French film of its day, the notoriety surrounding its production and its subsequent box office failure, it would be valuable to see how they tried to sell it. A trailer or some poster art would have been the ultimate capper for this special edition.
If Playtime seems too intimidating to newcomers because it has an esoteric air about it, that's the fault of those who love it too much. Admirers' appreciation for its nuances may have given the movie the reputation of being "for insiders only." The history of its making and some exposure to Tati's brand of comedy will certainly inform the experience of new viewers, but it's not required reading. Playtime is a fun and unique movie waiting to be discovered with fresh eyes and this Blu-ray edition is unquestionably the best way to see it short of a 70mm revival at a theater near you. Fans of the movie who always find something new when they re-watch it will think they've died and gone to Tativille.
The court thanks Criterion for its good work. Playtime on Blu-ray is granted immunity forever.
Review content copyright © 2009 William Lee; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
* PCM 2.0 Stereo (French)
Running Time: 124 Minutes
Release Year: 1967
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Select-Scene Commentary
* Short Film
* Liner Notes