Director : Jacques Tati
Screenplay : Jacques Tati (with the artistic collaboration of Jacques Lagrange and the participation of Bert Haanstra)
MPAA Rating : G
Year of Release : 1971
Stars : Jacques Tati (Monsieur Hulot), Marcel Fraval (Truck Driver), Honoré Bostel (Director of Altra), François Maisongrosse (François), Tony Knepper (Mechanic), Maria Kimberly (Maria)
Given the manner in which his films are discussed, it would be easy to assume that Jacques Tati made only three films featuring his iconic character, Monsieur Hulot. First introduced in 1953 in M. Hulot’s Holiday, Hulot was to French comedy what Chaplin’s Little Tramp and Keaton’s various stone-faced characters were to American comedy: an immediately recognizable and widely adored central figure whose simple presence was enough to draw smiles and start eliciting laughs. This is why it was so subversive for Tati to start off Playtime (1967), the third Hulot film and his true masterpiece, with a series of “false Hulots” while making the real character little more than a marginal figure who moved around the edges of the everyday hurly-burly of a modern cityscape. Hulot also appeared in Mon Oncle (1958), which contrasted two Parisian quartiers and was the first of Tati’s films to invest deeply in the effects of modernization and technology.
However, Hulot also appeared in a fourth film, 1971’s Trafic, which even Tati’s most ardent admirers are forced to admit is a significantly lesser film than those that preceded it, which is why it is rarely discussed except as a footnote (“Oh, yeah, there was also Trafic ...). The lesser standing of Trafic is largely due to the artistic compromises Tati had to make in the wake of Playtime, in which he had invested and subsequently lost virtually all of his money. The most expensive film ever made in France at the time, Playtime was not immediately appreciated to audiences (not enough Hulot) or respected by critics (too self-indulgent), and its box-office failure virtually assured that Tati’s next project could not be made on his own terms. Interestingly enough, Trafic was originally intended to be a co-directorial effort with Dutch filmmaker Bert Haanstra, but Haanstra left early in the production because Tati was too difficult to work with.
Trafic, as the franglais title suggests, is about modern society’s obsession with cars. Cars had long been an object of fascination in Tati’s films; remember that Hulot is first introduced in M. Hulot’s Holiday via his rattling claptrap of a car, which becomes a kind of visual stand-in for the man before he actually appears on screen, and Playtime ends with a beautiful and funny ballet of cars driving around a traffic circle. Thus, the subject matter of Trafic fits with the natural progression of the first three Hulot films, even if the film itself doesn’t. The previous films had each grown in scope, scale, and technological sophistication (from the single beach resort setting of Holiday, to contrasting Parisian neighborhoods of Mon Oncle, to the massive, sprawling Paris of the future in Playtime), while M. Hulot’s role grew relatively smaller, to the point that he was virtually a peripheral character. In Trafic, on the other hand, M. Hulot once again takes center stage, appearing in more scenes and shots than he had in any of the previous films and talking more than in all of them combined (although you can rarely understand exactly what he’s saying). As far as scope goes, Trafic feels relatively small, especially with Tati’s retreat to the Academy aspect ratio after experimenting with the grandiosity of 70mm in Playtime.
The story presents Hulot as a car designer for the fictional auto manufacturer Altra. (knowing Hulot from the previous films, it is odd to see him not only gainfully employed, but in a position of some authority). The plot requires Hulot, an American public relations guru named Maria (Maria Kimberly), and a truck driver (Marcel Fraval) to transport Hulot’s latest creation, a rather ridiculous camper car that features geek-gadget amenities like a built-in tent, a picnic table that pulls out from the bumper, and an electric razor built into the steering wheel, to an international auto show in Switzerland. The journey across Europe is hardly an easy trek, and Hulot and company are constantly waylaid by various catastrophes and setbacks: the mechanical break-down of the ironically rattling old truck used to transport the latest and greatest of automotive innovations, being detained at the Swiss border by customs agents, and a massive pile-up at an intersection that allows Tati his one moment of truly inspired choreography (this scene also can’t help but make you wonder what he would have been able to stage if he had had the budget of Playtime).
Tati was no doubt frustrated when he made Trafic, especially because it forced him to give Hulot a larger role even though he was anxious to distance himself from the character and try other things. This frustration manifests itself in the film in strange ways, including several mean-spirited gags that are unlike anything in Tati’s other films. Most notable is the sequence in which a group of teenagers trick Maria into thinking that her precious dog has been run over by a car by wedging an afghan jacket under the tire. Maria’s hysterical emotional reaction to the “death” of her pooch is exacerbated by the well-meaning Hulot, who attempts to prove it is not her dog by stomping on the coat and pulling off the button that represents the nose.
At the same time, though, Tati’s love of simple human connection shines through the cracks, especially as Maria’s hard-nosed professionalism slowly erodes and the film culminates in a picnic that illustrates how the camper car’s innovations are important only insofar as they provide space for people to come together. While there is also some lousy observational humor, like a sequence that finds a succession of people picking their noses inside their cars, there are also some wonderfully funny visual gags, such as the one in which Hulot is walking down the highway with an empty gas can looking for a petrol station and notices a man doing the same thing but walking in the opposite direction.
Thus, even though Trafic is a disappointment, a significant step down from Tati’s previous cinematic achievements and an obvious concession by a great and idiosyncratic artist to perceived audience desires, it has enough moments of inspiration and good will that it does not quite deserve the critical status it has been afforded. No doubt it will always be seen as a second-tier effort because, quite honestly, that is what it is, which produces a strangely ambivalent feeling in those who love Tati, but hate to see him compromised. In this regard, Trafic is best understood as a prime example of what happens when a unique genius tries to conform, resulting in something that is neither fully his own nor fully commercial.
|Trafic Criterion Collection Two-Disc DVD Set|
|Audio||French Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural|
|Distributor||The Criterion Collection|
|Release Date||July 15, 2008|
|VIDEO & AUDIO|
|Criterion’s new high-definition digital transfer of Trafic was made from a 35mm interpositive and digitally restored with the MTI Digital Restoration System. Like M. Hulot’s Holiday and Mon Oncle, it is presented in its intended Academy aspect ratio (1.33:1), which also means that Criterion has slightly windowboxed the image. That issue aside, the image looks excellent. It is bright, smooth, and clean, with great detail and good colors, although the overall image appears to have the slightly gray-green tinge that we saw on Criterion’s original DVD release of Playtime. Whether or not that accurately reflects the theatrical look of the film, I don’t know. Despite the film’s age, there is not a mark or scratch to be found. Like all of Tati’s films, the soundtrack is extremely important, and even though Trafic is monaural, the sound on this disc is excellent, with good depth and detail.|
|Criterion has put together another strong set of supplements to compliment those available on their two-disc release of Playtime. The biggest supplement is In the Footsteps of Monsieur Hulot a two-hour,two-part documentary made in 1989 that covers the entirety of Tati’s career. Some of the highlights include rare footage of his early days performing in a music hall, numerous interviews in both French and English, and behind-the-scenes photographs and clips from the production of all five of his films. There are also some wonderful photographs of Tati’s trip to Hollywood when he won the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar for Mon Oncle and got to meet Buster Keaton, Stan Laurel, and other American comedy legends. On the first disc we get a 7-minute interview with the cast of Trafic from a 1971 episode of the French television program Le journal de cinema; “The Comedy of Jacques Tati” (15 min.), a 1973 episode from the French television program Morceaux de bravoure; and the original theatrical trailer. The insert booklet includes an excellent critical essay by film critic Jonathan Romney.|
Copyright ©2008 James Kendrick
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