When people talk about Jacques Tati, they usually just talk kind of vaguely about the alienation of modern life and technology. Which, you know, sure. But Playtime is much much more than that. Most of the running time is, to be sure, about alienation in modern surroundings. And before I even get to my big but about that I want to point out the smaller but that even this alienation is presented with such a degree of playfulness and exhilaration that tells you that Tati's not wandering through this alienation anywhere near as helplessly as his Monsieur Hulot is. The characters in the movie might have emotions ranging from not-unhappy downwards, but the movie itself is filled with joy.
Towards the end of the film we find out explicitly where it comes from, and it's my big but. In an extended sequence, a brand-new ultra-modern nightclub starts getting customers before it's even done being constructed, and then people keep piling in in larger and larger numbers and before long they've literally torn the place to pieces. And as they destroy and remake the modern world they're in, they suddenly become absolutely, uproariously joyous, and dance and drink and laugh into the morning.
And then, here's the great part: the rest of the movie keeps that mood. They're back out into surroundings they haven't remade for themselves, surroundings that just yesterday (just about fifteen minutes ago in screen time) were harsh and alien, but the joy remains. These people have figured out how to take the surroundings they're given and use them for their own purposes, rather than how the places signal them to use them.
Or, as Jonathan Rosenbaum put it (as I see him quoted by Roger Ebert), Playtime
directs us to look around at the world we live in (the one we keep building), then at each other, and to see how funny that relationship is and how many brilliant possibilities we still have in a shopping-mall world that perpetually suggests otherwise; to look and see that there are many possibilities and that the play between them, activated by the dance of our gaze, can become a kind of comic ballet, one that we both observe and perform.This is why the Baronette says it's nice to learn that Debord loved the movie. It could just as well have been called Psychogeography: The Movie. Except of course that that would take probably the single most wonderfully joyful movie I've ever seen and make it sound kind of dry and intellectual. Which it completely is not. I've seriously never had so much fun watching a movie, nor have I ever been so inspired to face the world differently by a movie.