In 1967 Jacques Tati brought his signature character, Monsieur Hulot, back to the silver screen. This time in an ambitious and expensive new film entitled Playtime. The scene in the glass waiting room takes place on a custom-built set. Tati needed complete control of the mise en scene in order to pull off his silent pantomime.
The scene is just two minutes long and involves only a single character. The limited number of elements enables Tati to carefully control our attention and craft his unique brand of humor. There are some resemblances to Buster Keaton but Tati is more understated less spectacular. There are no death-defying spectacles for Monsieur Hulot to perform.
While Playtime is a comedy it is also a satire. Monsieur Hulot finds himself buffeted around by the self-confident world of Modernism. Specifically, modernism as it pertains to the architecture and visual arts movement of the mid-twentieth century. The Modernism of Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe, and Picasso.
Modernism’s most salient quality is optimism. It is a belief that new technologies, new ideas, and ambitious optimism can fuel progress. Modernism and progress are inseparable. The great artists of the avant- guard would lead us out of the trenchant past and into a bright future where everything would be brighter, more efficient, automated, and convenient. Looking back from 2020 it’s difficult to grasp such optimism. For the modernist, a giant smokestack billowing black smoke is an unproblematic symbol of prosperity and success.
Monsieur Hulot is unsure of where he fits into this strange new world. He is curious but befuddled by it. He’s a bit like the image of a middle-aged father as seen through his hip, young teenage son’s eyes. Monsieur Hulot often seems to admire the strange products of the modern world, but he doesn’t understand them. They are curiosities to be examined.
In the glass room scene, Monsieur Hulot finds himself in a typical modernist room. It is constructed out of plate glass and thin steel girders. It is what Mies van der Rohe called the “skin and bones style.” It is meant to impart a feeling of openness, levity, and freedom, but for Monsieur Hulot, it functions like a confusing cage or hall of mirrors. The glass seems to partition off arbitrary boundaries. The space is awkward and uncomfortable. Without opaque walls, anyone inside is made into a quarantined object for observation.
Monsieur Hulot is indeed observed by stern and disapproving faces. Hung on each wall is a photograph of a high-level administrator glaring out at the viewer. The camera angles and timing reveal each one starring in mute but stern disapproval of Monsieur Hulot’s improper use of the space. In modernism, there is a certain confidence that the architect or designer knows what is best for society and can organize and orchestrate humanity’s behavior. Monsieur Hulot is a fly in the buttermilk. He doesn’t use the space properly and so fouls up the works.
In Modern Times Charlie Chaplin is driven mad by the industrialized factory. He is made into a mindless cog in the machine. Monsieur Hulot doesn’t fit in the machine. He is more a wrench than a cog. He is naive and inquisitive but works under the premise that he is somehow qualified to judge and evaluate these new accouterments of life. In the glass terrarium that he is sealed in, he tests the chairs. They make strange noises when you press on them, and the impression you leave on their cushions pops back into place with a little popping sound. Monsieur Hulot seems to observe this and think “Ah! So this is how this works, how very clever.” The attitude is somewhat like the used car customer who doesn’t really know how to evaluate a car and so makes a show of kicking the tires.
Like Socrates’ annoying gadfly, Monsieur Hulot, through his poking and prodding exposes a power struggle at work. The modern architect with his grandiose and hegemonic vision squares off against a clownish piece of unpredictable humanity.
In today’s world skateboarders instinctive recognize the hegemony of architecture and so transgress it. A space that is meant to facilitate efficient and orderly foot traffic becomes a playground for creative engagement. The railings and sidewalks that are meant to control our behavior become opportunities to perform tricks. Tati is engaged in something very similar.
There is fundamental juxtaposition at work that pits the organic human body against the geometric design of modernity. Whether it is skateboarding, parkour or Monsieur Hulot’s poking his pointy nose into places it doesn’t belong, the soft, fragile curves of the human body must find a way to accommodate the hard, regularity of extruded steel and sheets of glass.
Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton are both bruised and battered by the fast-paced world of machines and buildings. Their bodies are caught up in it. Monsieur Hulot remains uninjured. He is outside looking in where Buster and Chaplin are buffeted around inside the system trying to find a way to survive.
All of these characters negotiate between being an “everyman” representative for the audience and a kind of clown that we can ridicule for being so naive. However, the clown in turn laughs back at us for being unaware of how the world around us is shaping who we are.