In their work from the 1960s and ’70s, Bayrle and Tati seem to echo Jacobs’s critique, showing what will happen if such urban sprawl continues unchecked. In order to satirize the modern city, however, Tati first had to make a city of his own. With a budget of 17 million francs (unheard of for a French comedy), he hired 100 construction workers to build roads, ultramodern office interiors, and miniature skyscrapers on the outskirts of Paris. The resulting set—nicknamed Tativille—is easily the most memorable character in Playtime. It’s a heartless, cyborg version of Paris, as if every building were designed by Andreu or Eiermann. The same could be said for many of Bayrle’s cityscapes. City by the Forest (1982) seems to mock Le Corbusier’s lofty ideas about towers and parks; instead of coexisting with nature, this city seems poised to devour the wilderness around it.
When watching Playtime or studying one of Bayrle’s city collages, it’s crucial to look closely. Tati hired hundreds of extras and gave each one precise, careful directions for where to move. It’s incredible how many little stories and sketches he conceals in each of the film’s crisp, deeply focused frames; film scholar Noël Burch was onto something when he said that Playtime demanded to be seen several times, and from several different seats in the theater, to be appreciated completely. Looking at Bayrle’s city scenes can be either anxiety-inducing or weirdly calming, depending on your temperament. You find yourself following the cars up and down the streets, as if through an enormous maze, until, eventually, you come back to your starting place. As if to protest the rigidity of modernist city-planning, both Tati and Bayrle give viewers the freedom to roam to and fro with their eyes, never insisting on where to look or what to think.
But perhaps it’s because Tati and Bayrle have such conflicted feelings about their subject matter that they give their audiences so much latitude in deciding what to feel. Tati went bankrupt building the ersatz skyscrapers he satirized in Playtime, and Bayrle continued cashing checks from Ferrero Chocolates and Pierre Cardin, exactly the kinds of companies whose employees might work in the pathetic little buildings featured in City. That’s why, in the end, it’s not enough to say that these two great artists are appalled by the growth of the modern European city. They’re also amused, confused, hypnotized, and more than a little bit terrified.