As I mentioned in my review of Tati’s 1967 film PlayTime (here), that film is a masterpiece, one of the greatest motion pictures ever made. Sadly, it also broke its creator and made financiers wary of supporting his ambition. His next outing, for the last time as his famous character Monsieur Hulot, was the greatly scaled back Trafic (1971). This film has its defenders, for sure, but I’m not among them. I don’t actively dislike Trafic, but it makes me sad. Tati didn’t want to make another Hulot film, but it was the only way he could get money for the project. In a way, it was as if those with the money were saying that they didn’t care about what Tati could do as a director; they only wanted him to be Hulot. There’s frustration in this film, some defeat.
Trafic opens with an overhead shot of an assembly line in a vehicle manufacturing factory. Sheets of metal are getting shaped into side panels for uniform vehicles, in a non-stop line. It’s the beginning of a process: those tons of raw material are being shaped into the objects that will ultimately eternally crowd a vehicle graveyard.
This is where Hulot works. That’s right: he has a job! Our man who couldn’t hold a job at his brother-in-law’s hose manufacturing plant, has just designed this company’s new camping car, a gadget-laden vehicle that is just about to be revealed to the world at the Amsterdam auto show.
On the surface, this seeming discontinuity in character doesn’t bother me at all. I’d like to grant Tati the leeway to take the character and the film in any direction he chooses. However, for me, some of his charm is lost because he’s a man with responsibility; he’s a even a bit exasperated. Here, the pace of the modern world seems to be affecting him. Now, when he is driving or running through the little towns on his way to Amsterdam, he’s the one who is unable to take it all in.
As in PlayTime, Hulot himself is not the focus of the film. Yes, we do follow his trip to Amsterdam to show off the camper car, but we spend a lot of time with other characters as well (including documentary-like shots of other drivers, the everymans who feel invulnerable and untouchable in their cars). But unlike in PlayTime, I don’t see it as a strength. One character in particular, the company’s frantic PR rep Maria (Maria Kimberly), is particularly loud and angry. There’s little Hulot can do to lighten things up.
It’s not all bad, of course. Tati is too good to make a truly terrible film, and the sly relationships he draws are terrific (in particular, I like that the Apollo 11 mission is frequently on the screen, this feat of human engineering and imagination played against the much lesser feat of the camper car). Yes, it’s still fun and clever. Just not as consistently. Even my three-year-old ditched me on this one, and he hadn’t done that in any of the prior Tati films.
Sadly, the supplements, or, rather, supplement seems to underscore my feelings toward the film. Almost nonexistent, especially when compared to the other discs in the set, the only substantive one does not even deal with Trafic specifically.
Other than the trailer, we only get a 1976 episode of the British television show Omnibus called “Jacques Tati in Monsieur Hulot’s Work.” It runs for 49 minutes, and features an interview with Tati at the Hôtel de la Plage, made famous in Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday. It’s a great feature, in and of itself, as Tati goes through Hulot’s now finished career on the screen. He’s funny and fun, and it’s refreshing after Trafic.
And that’s it. I’m not particularly disappointed, as Trafic is by far my least favorite Hulot film. However, one of the great things about supplements is that sometimes they open the film up, help you understand and appreciate it more. That’s just not a possibility here.
All that said, Trafic is an important plot-line in the story of the cinema of Jacques Tati. It might make you feel sad — or, I hope, you’re one who nevertheless finds joy in the picture — but that sadness is part of the greater story. Frankly, it makes me appreciate the work from Tati that we have.