What can we make of Trafic, Jacques Tati's last film? It certainly isn't a major success, as M. Hulot's Holiday and Mon Oncle are. It's not a gallant failure, as I believe Playtime is. It seems to me that it is a sad, sometimes amusing combination of those things that made Tati so unique, so funny, so problematic and so drawn to making mundane social commentary. There must be something in the water we drink or the bread we eat that causes some humans with extraordinary artistic gifts to believe that because they are great artists they also must have equally great gifts of social philosophy, gifts which they are determined to share with us.
By the time Tati made Trafic, four years after Playtime, he had lost ownership of his life's work, his films, and most of his money. Playtime was a debacle. He had spent a fortune, his own as well as others, to craft a perfectionist's dream of artistic control. He ended up with a movie that was filled with surprises, layer on layer of -- for wont of a better term -- sight and sound gags, with fascinatingly complex amusements for an audience willing to let the situations develop around them, and seemingly endless, obvious and often impersonal visual commentary on the homogenizing of modern society and the perils of technology. Most moviegoers were not all that interested.
Now, with Trafic, Mr. Hulot has come back. He is a designer for a Paris auto company, and he has developed a camping vehicle like no other. Trafic is the story of Mr. Hulot's delivery of his camper from Paris to an international auto show in Amsterdam. It's a long journey filled with misunderstandings, accidents and crashes. There is an attractive aireheaded PR executive with an endless number of dress changes, as well as cops, windshield wipers and a lot of cars. The movie is as exquisitely built as an expensive vest pocket timepiece. Unfortunately, time has a way of catching us up, and Mr. Hulot now is a man past middle age, where male innocence seems unlikely and somewhat unattractive.
Tati was 64 now, and he looks it. The gentle, innocent mime who meets unexpected personal situations at a small seaside hotel or tries to help his young nephew has been replaced by a well-meaning older gentleman we more often observe than we root for. His encounters with the clichés of faceless technology and bumbling bureaucracy are increasingly with people with few understandable, sympathetic foibles. Mr. Hulot to be at his best needs people we can come to like and interact with, not simply interchangeable stand-ins...even if they're picking their noses in the privacy of their cars (in a sight gag probably only Tati could have pulled off).
Mr. Hulot only appeared in four feature-length movies. It is Tati's genius that in less than 500 minutes he gave us such a memorable and appealing human being. Tati's layering of sight gags is unique and often intensely and unexpectedly funny. With Trafic, however, I found my interest more intellectual than anything else. There were stretches of the film that simply weren't all that engaging. And this, of course, is all just opinion.
Jacques Tati's movies are classics to be treasured. The Criterion two-disc release has a fine DVD color transfer and an assortment of interesting extras that include a major documentary on the Hulot character. There is a substantial essay on Trafic in an enclosed booklet. The author, Jonathan Romney, writes that Trafic has a melancholy quality. He's right.