Appellate Judge James A. Stewart wants his gas station to give away sculpture. Trouble is, they thought that idea was a bust.
"The camping car must leave for Amsterdam tomorrow!"
Jacques Tati went back to the real world, more or less, with Trafic. His previous Mr. Hulot movie, Play Time, was filmed in "Tativille," an expensive modern set recreating the city of Paris. Its failure bankrupted Tati.
Trafic brought back the iconic character with the umbrella and the battered hat with funding from the Netherlands and a partnership with filmmaker Bert Haanstra, according to the essay accompanying this Criterion edition. Naturally, the story takes Mr. Hulot from Paris to Amsterdam.
This time, old-fashioned Mr. Hulot has designed a concept car full of gadgets and gizmos. Tati aims to show how "a person's personality changes completely the moment he gets in a car," as he told a TV interviewer in one of the clips accompanying this edition. "He starts talking about horsepower, the sheer bulk of the metal around him changes his personality. A perfectly charming gentleman who leaves a restaurant or bar and gets in his car is suddenly aggressive, practically a gangster, because the man up ahead has a faster car."
Remember this is Trafic: The Criterion Collection, so this is a faster, sleeker edition of Trafic. Don't let the horsepower and sheer bulk of the extras change your personality. Just enjoy the ride.
Facts of the Case
Altra, a Paris car company, has to get a prototype camping car to Amsterdam for a car show. Naturally, they've asked their designer, Mr. Hulot (Jacques Tati, Mr. Hulot's Holiday), to go along. Guess they never heard about his holiday. What happens? Everything from running out of gas to customs problems to a chain-reaction crash on the motorway. No fireworks, though.
Trafic is not quite silent; running gags include radio commercial spots like "A new raincoat…especially made for the sun" on the various car radios in passing. There are also flurries of conversation that get nowhere, as in other Mr. Hulot movies.
There are some great bits that'll stick in your head: a gas station that gives away faux marble busts as a promotion, a ridiculous chain-reaction crash of errors, and dogs barking at each other in imitation of human tempers flaring during a jam. The scene in which the customs officials are fascinated with the gadget-laden concept camping car is also a classic.
One of the common complaints about Tati's Play Time was that Mr. Hulot wasn't in it enough. Mr. Hulot appears more in Trafic, but he still sometimes gets lost in Jacques Tati's "big picture" concept. Trafic tackles a lot of big ideas about transportation—including the first lunar landing, playing on TV in several scenes—but Tati doesn't always relate them to Mr. Hulot, his everyman. Mr. Hulot is often seen as a small speck along a large highway, in a field, at a convention center; too much of this and he gets lost. It seems odd to wish an artiste had been egotistical enough to center everything around his own character, but there it is.
That said, Trafic has its charms. Through common travails, Mr. Hulot forms a bond of friendship with the driver and PR lady who accompany him on the Amsterdam trip, and you even come to like the customs officials who hold up the trip. Somehow, even though he's pointing at the follies of modern life, Tati likes people and that comes through in his movie.
I watched Trafic twice for this review. As I did, I picked up on a few gags that went by quickly the first time—such as workers turning an "O" right side up on the auto show sign even though it doesn't really matter with an "O" or a worker in the Altra factory making an impromptu set of steps out of drawers. Tati doesn't telegraph his gags; while viewers have to be alert, there'll always be something new in Trafic for repeat viewers.
The digital remastering looks good, and the sound's even better, capturing all the ambient noise in Mr. Hulot's world.
As expected with Criterion editions, the extras make Trafic worth a purchase. The best of these is Tati: In the Footsteps of Mr. Hulot, a biography of Jacques Tati directed by his daughter, Sophie Tatischeff. The two-parter made for French TV tracks Tati's career from his music hall days, with clips from his early comedy shorts, Jour de Fete, and, of course, the Mr. Hulot pictures. While his daughter doesn't appear, she chooses clips that provide a picture of where Tati was in life; the man who was on top of the world with Mr. Hulot's Holiday and Mon Oncle went through a rough patch with the failure of Play Time and came back as a wiser elder statesman, championing short films and the music hall experience. The film clips included show that, even in his earliest days, the themes of repetition and communication weaved their way through Tati's work. It's a comprehensive look at a director who drew admiration both from audiences and from comedy stars like Buster Keaton and Stan Laurel.
Talk show appearances and interviews—there are extended clips from Morceaux de Bravoure and Le Journal du Cinema promoting Trafic as well as shorter clips in the biography (including an American appearance with Steve Allen)—reveal Tati as a fascinating, kinetic raconteur, almost pantomiming anecdotes as he tells them. Even with the language barrier (broken through by subtitles), it's great watching him describe a typical busy restaurant or what people talking at once sounds like. The package is rounded out by a trailer (with an overly excited announcer) and an essay booklet.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Who'd watch a silent movie nowadays? While there aren't many totally dialogue-free films (and Jacques Tati didn't avoid dialogue entirely), there are lots of movies that have long stretches of action that's wordless or nearly so. I Am Legend, which showed Will Smith touring a desolate New York City with a dog, comes to mind immediately. Actors who can get the character across without dialogue really show their chops.
If you want to get acquainted with Mr. Hulot, it's always best to go on Mr. Hulot's Holiday first. That landmark modern silent is an obvious influence on The Pink Panther and Mr. Bean, for starters. It's also a very funny little picture.
While casual viewers might prefer the simpler Holiday and Mon Oncle, fans of Tati will want to own Trafic: The Criterion Collection, not just for a movie that grows better with repeat viewings, but also for an excellent portrait of the artist as both a young man and an older, wiser one. A couple of these talk show clips might be worth the purchase price alone.
Not guilty. Pardon me while I go back and do some editing; all my "O"s are upside-down.
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• Tati: In the Footsteps of Mr. Hulot
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