The first clue is in the title. Not in its meaning exactly, but in the fact that when Jacques Tati’s 1967 cri de coeur, three painful years in the making, was finally released in French cinemas, the title was in English. Gasp!
What was already clear to those who knew and worked with Tati was that by the early 1960s he was royally fed up—with being the “French Chaplin,” with being the filmmaker whose films (as Godard so cruelly put it) were watched by people who “didn’t really go to the cinema.” And most of all, he was starting to tire of his alter ego, Monsieur Hulot, whose popularity threatened to asphyxiate Tati’s career. A decade earlier, Mon oncle had introduced the concept of “Hulot versus mechanization” on a micro-level (Hulot visits his brother-in-law’s home and factory), but Tati wanted, and felt he had earned the right to, a wider canvas—so he built one, across a five-acre patch of wasteland outside Paris. There he shot Play Time.
“I could have carried on doing the same thing, there was no financial risk, it would have worked: the postman [from Jour de fête] gets married; the postman robs a bank or gets conscripted or whatever—like churning out canned food. In the end I made four films I wanted to make and my story ends there,” Tati would solemnly reflect years later when the fallout had started to ease off. For if Play Time was Tati’s Modern Times, it was also, regrettably, his Heaven’s Gate: the most expensive film ever made in France, it baffled audiences and flopped, despite always enjoying critical success and attaining masterpiece status years later when its manifold predictions about the dysfunctional relationship between man and modernity (cubicle-based working, wastefully vast reception space in modern office buildings) had started to come to pass. The film’s commercial failure contributed to Tati’s decline into bankruptcy and the great artist’s cliché of a penniless death.