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Constant Delighted Astonishment

Everybody loves a clown, so why don’t you? On Jacques Tati

The film maudit (“cursed film”) is a genre that everyone is familiar with, even if you’ve never heard its name. They are movies—usually very expensive ones—that were derided upon their initial release, but came to be appreciated many years later by scholars and cinephiles. Jacques Tati’s PlayTime (1967) is one of the most prominent examples, and its reputation only continues to grow. Following the success of his Academy Award–winning Mon Oncle, Tati, the writer, director, and star, decided to skewer the excesses and alienation of modern city life on a grand scale: he had a miniature city built on the outskirts of Paris, complete with paved roads and skyscrapers built from glass and steel. For eighteen months, Tati shot complicated visual gags on extra-wide 65-mm film stock and mimed the actions for every one of the hundreds of extras so that they could copy his movements; he also designed and recorded much of its soundtrack. Despite this painstaking work, PlayTime was dropped by its American distributor, while in France, the film’s critique of modernity was written off as shopworn. The comedian made two more feature-length films on increasingly smaller scales, but he never recovered—financially or emotionally—from the rejection of PlayTime.

Now, PlayTime regularly appears on lists of the best films of all time. It has been restored multiple times, and gets special runs at art houses around the world. Tati’s notorious film maudit has also gone on to inspire directors such as David Lynch and Wes Anderson. In this episode of the podcast, Harper’s Magazine web editor Violet Lucca discusses PlayTime, as well as the director’s other work, with Geoffrey O’Brien, whose review of the book The Definitive Jacques Tati appeared in the May issue. As their conversation reveals, Tati’s filmography has eerie and fascinating echoes in today’s world.

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May 2020

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