To me, and to perhaps anyone existing in some capacity outside of it, Paris seems to embody a special sort of time capsule. Even your experienced traveller, so long as she’s American, may regard Paris with a kind of love for the preciousness of antiquity, with which our cities in comparison seldom provide us. Parisians, most likely, and presumably French people not living in Paris, might feel the opposite: that Paris is modern, and maybe even too modern.
When I was in Paris, I stayed within the earlier centuries, but occasionally I’d find myself atop a roof of some museum or other and see, not too far away, a collection of modern-looking buildings that bore no resemblance to the ones around me. I later found out that I was looking at La Défense, the city’s major business district. Although it isn’t considered one of the city’s arrondissements, it is technically part of the city’s metropolitan area and boasts the tallest collection of buildings in Paris. I didn’t bother venturing out to see the district, for in my limited time I wanted only to maintain the old Paris that I read about in books. Modernity, I declared, would have to wait.
But it’s the choice of the tourist, I suppose, to skip over those things that can possibly change your mind about what you thought a city was about. For residents, their city’s modernity is much more difficult, perhaps even impossible, to escape.
With the disappearance of the gas mantle and the advent of the short circuit, man’s tranquility began to be threatened by everything he put his hand on.
—James Thurber, ‘Sex Ex Machina’
Although Jacques Tati built an enormous artificial set for his 1967 film Playtime, what you see is modern Paris. And although much of La Défense‘s first crop of skyscrapers were erected after the film’s release, Tati’s set, which came to be known as Tativille among the crew, stood in for the city’s modern business district.
Tati insisted that his set was the star of Playtime, justifying in jest the rather gargantuan cost of building it, which wouldn’t have been ‘any more than Sophia Loren.’ Tativille indeed does play the central role, subjugating every character in the film to an extra, even Monsieur Hulot, Tati’s recurring on-screen alter-ego.
Tativille looms in its extensive absurdity. Large glass buildings stand partially invisible in your way, sometimes causing you to run into doors. When the simple Monsieur Hulot arrives in the city to see a man about a job, he spends a great deal of time trying to catch up with him up and down the aisles, around all the cubicles, and in and out of different floors, but to no success. At a certain point, Hulot unknowingly steps outside and into another building, one holding a trade show selling office furniture, thinking he had never left because his surroundings remained the same.
Hulot continues to get swept along the modern current of the city, as does nearly everyone else. Unlike Hulot, who is clearly a visitor, almost everyone seems now used to their modern, technologically-advanced surroundings. But what they still have in common with Hulot is that they are still subjected to them in spite of that. Back in Tativille, the filmmaker chose to shave a bit of the film’s budget, due to the expensive set, by creating life-size cardboard cutouts of people to stand in the background of his shots. It was a budgetary decision primarily, but it also kept in theme with the film: everyone will be paying attention to the gadgets, and no one will be paying attention to the people.
I know people who would not deposit a nickel and a dime in a cigarette-vending machine and push the lever even if a diamond necklace came out. I know dozens who would not climb into an airplane even if it didn’t move off the ground. In none of these people have I discerned what I would call a neurosis, an ‘exaggerated’ fear; I have discerned only a natural caution in a world made up of gadgets that whir and whine and whiz and shriek and sometimes explode.
The simple Monsieur Hulot still serves as one example of a man reacting to a machine-driven world, but he is indeed a special case. Although he is oftentimes confused, his lack of self-awareness makes it possible to take everything in stride. As a result he is befuddled at worst, yet his unmuddled thinking—as well as his characteristic way of regarding only what is happening right then and there, similar to a child—is ultimately what gets him through his obstructions. That and chance, which, even in the most ultra-modern of cities, can still find its way around. Remember that man Hulot was trying to track down in the office building? He eventually finds him, on the street, walking his dog.
Contrast Hulot’s quality with nearly everyone else in the film: the man in the building who breaks his nose after mistakenly running into a glass door, the American tourists who are constantly being corralled and never even know what they happen to be missing, and the entire frenzied staff of the Royal Garden nightclub, who try their very best to cater to their guests despite the venue’s fancy facade falling apart and its gadgets malfunctioning. Furthermore, the only two people aside from Hulot who aren’t too negatively affected by the malfunctions around them are also visitors to the modern city: one, an American tourist called Barbara ,who possesses a quality not unlike Hulot of present observation and thus oftentimes veers away from her group, and the other, an American businessman who is so drunk that he is never fully aware of his surroundings. Again, chance makes its cameo, when Hulot, Barbara, and the businessman come together and are the three people having the most fun as the Royal Garden breaks down around them.