Criterion: Trafic, Jacques Tati, 1971
As workers and mechanics are preparing to send their model car off to Amsterdam for a car show, we hear them whistle a number of familiar tunes. We hear snippets from Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday, Mon Oncle, and probably various others if you listen carefully. The trace of Hulot’s presence is immediately evident, even if we do not see him for a few minutes.
The shock of Hulot’s introduction in Traffic is that he is employed. Previously, he was nearly unemployable. In Mon Oncle, he bombed an interview and got fired from a job for incompetence, and in PlayTime, he could not even navigate the modern world to get time in the same room with a potential employer. Even in Jour de Fete, where Tati’s Francois could be seen as a prelude to Hulot, he has a job and is absolutely terrible at it.
In the years after PlayTime, Hulot has clearly had a change in ideals. Not only is he employed at an auto company, but he is an actual designer. The car that he ends up designing would be admired by the Arpels from Mon Oncle or by the invention expositioners in PlayTime. It is an entirely modern camper, a way of getting outdoors and enjoying life, but with a lot of clever, innovative and sometimes useless features that are the exact type of thing that baffled Hulot previously.
The fact that he obtained the job and designed something modern and silly is a mystery, but that’s not at the heart of the story. He and his team are responsible for transporting his model camper car to an auto show in Amsterdam. As can be expected, a lot of hijinks occur along the way that slow down and threaten to half the trip entirely.
In some ways Traffic is similar to the previous three films. They are mostly in long shot without close-ups, with sight gags that are easy to miss the first time through, not too much dialogue from the main characters, plenty of background noise, a mixture of languages, and of course, Monsieur Hulot is at the center of it all. Despite these similarities, this does not feel like the same type of Tati film. Perhaps it is unfair to compare it to the previous trio, which are arguable masterpieces, but everything seems a little more watered down this time out. The jokes are not quite as inventive. There are big laughs, such as when Hulot hangs upside down while trying to fix some ivy, but it feels like it has been done already. Previously Tati had been pushing his art a little further each time, and that resulted in PlayTime, his finest film. Traffic feels like a creative step back.
That is not to say this is a bad movie. Lesser Tati is still enjoyable and worth watching, and there are plenty of quality scenes. The traffic accident scene ranks up with the best of Tati’s scenes across his entire filmography. There are other lighter touches, such as the windshield wipers reflecting the look and personality of the drivers, and the mass of umbrellas at the end, that are full of the Tatiesque charm. Yet, for all of those, there are other scenes that don’t quite work. I could have done without the anonymous nose-picking in cars, which is too easy and not nearly as intelligent as most of Tati’s humor. There is also the cruel practical joke that makes Maria mistake her dog for dead, when the doppelganger is a mop with a button nose and far from realistic. Tati was probably trying to connect the children’s pranks from Mon Oncle, but those were organic and fun, whereas the dog prank is tired and transparent.
The ending is up to par with the rest of his work. When Maria is on the boat in the water, we see her appreciate the beauty of her surroundings, which is consistent with Tati’s typical arc of anti-technology and humanizing his characters. When they get away from the hustle and bustle, they find themselves refreshed and their personality changes for the better. Like with PlayTime, they go in circles rather than squares, only in Traffic they embrace quiet and solitude as opposed to the everlasting automobile congestion.
The end is bittersweet. Even though this film is not quite up to par with the remainder of Tati’s work, it is the final film for an endearing character. The outcome for Hulot is no surprise, but we’d like to know what awaits him next. We’ll miss him. It is not easy to say goodbye to Monsieur Hulot. Adieu, my friend!
Film Rating: 6.5
“Jacques Tati in Monsieur Hulot’s Work” – This is a 1976 program from the British show Omnibus. It begins at the beach house of Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday. Most of the special consists of interviews with Tati about his craft and his films, jumping backward and forward throughout his work. The one thing I have learned from this set is that Tati is not the greatest interview, which is perhaps because of the language barrier, but more likely because he is protective, defensive and not too revealing about his art. Nevertheless, he does say some interesting things about his work. Tati says he is not criticizing modernity, but is defending people who feel they have to change. This makes sense with Traffic because Hulot tried to assimilate into this new, high-tech society, only to fall on his face yet again. My favorite part of this special was his comparing himself with the old masters, specifically Chaplin. His comedy is passive rather than Chaplin’s active. He talks about the wreath and tire part from Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday, and how differently Chaplin would have orchestrated the gag.
People ask him why he made so few films over the years, but he liked to do them in his own way with creative freedom, without making something that doesn’t live up to his style. He adds that “in life, you only have so many ideas.”
With only one major supplement and a film that doesn’t measure up to Tati’s filmography, this disc is the most disappointing, yet still worth a watch.
Criterion Rating: 5/10