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Essential Cinema: Playtime

By Rob Christopher in Arts & Entertainment on Apr 20, 2007 4:54PM

There are so many cultural institutions in Chicago that it'd be easy to overlook the Alliance Française de Chicago. In addition to being located inside a really cool building, this non-profit cultural exchange organization sponsors everything from language classes to lectures and gourmet food tastings. And movie screenings too. Tomorrow as part of their Ciné-club they'll be showing Playtime, Jacques Tati's 1967 classic.

2007_4playtime.jpg It demands to be seen on a big screen. First, picture a Mies van der Rohe skyscraper. Then picture an entire city block of Mies van der Rohe skyscrapers. Constructed on the outskirts of Paris, to scale, just for the movie. Then picture Tati's gently befuddled M. Hulot, gaggles of clueless tourists, fishtank apartments with floor-length windows, the disastrous opening night of a swank nightclub, and nonstop fluid movement like the world's most complicated ballet. That's Playtime.

Tati shot the film over a period of three years, and its expense eventually bankrupted him. But he made a movie that's totally unique in its ability to use a monumental canvas to delight and dazzle without even the merest whiff of cynicsm. It was shot in widescreen 65mm, but there's nary an explosion or car chase. It was recorded in multi-track stereophonic sound, but there are no essential lines of dialogue (instead, the soundtrack is a complex assemblage of sound effects and overheard dialogue). It's the Lawrence of Arabia of humanist visual comedy, with a predeliction for treating technology like an expensive toybox.

Although tomorrow's showing will be via projected DVD, you should still be able to appreciate the countless sight gags (involving such paragons of modernity as neon signs, plate-glass windows and escalators). It's at 1 p.m. in the Auditorium at 54 W. Chicago and includes a post-film discussion (in English). There's a $5 suggested donation.

Image via moviediva.