Jacques Tati’s Trafic was the director’s last appearance as M. Hulot and, coincidentally or not, his final great movie. Arriving soon after Playtime, a commercial failure but a artistic masterpiece, Trafic has too long been treated as an afterthought. Criterion’s DVD release should put such critical neglect to rest: it’s a superb, funny, clever, delightful film, playful and creative and as much fun as any comedy ever made.
In past films, amiable oddball Monsieur Hulot was a bemused outsider navigating the craziness of the modern world. Tati’s universe is not a hostile place, just alien to the old-fashioned Hulot, a gentle soul just slightly out of step with the pace of life and the march of technology, fascinated and often flummoxed but always game. In Trafic he’s less an outsider that a professional dreamer in a business world. He’s an automobile designer for the (fictional) Altra company and his latest creation, a compact car camper, comes equipped with more visual gags and hidden accessories than a Tex Avery cartoon, from a front grill that doubles as a cooking grill to a horn that pulls out of the steering column to become an electric razor. The camper is the centerpiece of Altra’s offerings at the Amsterdam Car Show, or would be if can ever get there. This cutting edge contraption is packed into a ramshackle, broken-down truck that hits every road movie mishap imaginable on the road from Paris to Amsterdam: flat tire, empty gas tank, urban gridlock, highway fender-bender turned bumper-car snarl. The car is even impounded at the border, thanks to the distracted drive of Maria (Maria Kimberly), the American public relations professional hired to pull the event together. She zips around in her sporty convertible as if she doesn’t notice (or at least acknowledge) the other drivers on the road, and the Altra truck gets caught in the chaos of her wake.
The film bounces between their progress (or, more accurately, lack of progress) and the sights and sounds of the auto show, where the Altra rep parks his desk in a stall empty but for a backdrop of cardboard trees: a campsite waiting for its camper. The running tape of pre-recorded bird chirps only adds to the surreal spectacle of this manufactured slice of the natural world in the crawl of convention center crowds. All the while Tati carries us along his lazy river of comedy, playing with sight gags shot in long takes and letting the audience see the bits of business erupt all over the frame in long shot. Tati is the great observer of human behavior, at rest and motion. In Trafic, there is plenty of both.
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