There ends up a lot to enjoy in Jacques Tati’s final theatrically released feature film, but I think it’s obvious that Tati was best when he was given total control of everything, gobs of money, and an unusual amount of time to craft the comedy. Out in the wilds, given the road trip format of the film’s story, the comedic stylings never reach the delirious highs of any of his previous three films, but his talent was too strong, his ideas too clear, and his heart too warm for the film overall to descend into something less than worthwhile.
M. Hulot (Tati) works for a small car manufacturer as a designer, and they are putting the final touches on their camping car for a large car expo in Amsterdam. What follows is a misadventure as everything goes wrong on the journey from the truck they’re using to transport the car breaking down multiple times to being held up at the border with the Netherlands to needing to get the car slightly fixed after an accident. It’s a leisurely paced film with an episodic structure, moreso obviously than any of Tati’s films since Jour du Fete. What knits it all together is, like all the rest, Tati’s sense of comedy.
Each episode was either filmed on a closed set or at a location, and, without fail, the sequences filmed on sets are funnier than those filmed on locations. I have a theory that Tati was allowed more time to figure out comedic bits in sets than on location, so he was able to find more funny things to happen, like the dance of workers in the garage at the beginning as they take each other’s equipment leading to one working pulling out a series of drawers and walking up them to account for his missing ladder. That’s funny. The scene where Tati has to run across a field and get gas from a small town’s gas station is less so, the comedic bits limited to pretty much Tati running back and forth from where he left his gas can when he gets a ride back to the broken down truck.
This dichotomy between the higher quality gags on sets and the lower quality gags on location continues for a while, much more heavily weighted towards the location stuff. One piece that pops up from time to time that feels like a highly topical and hard to translate joke is a gas station that gives out artistic busts of famous men to each customer. I think it’s supposed to be a comment on the faux-culture you find at gas stations in Europe, but it’s a bit lost on me. There are good bits with the heads (like a customs officer looking into the back of the truck and finding a stone head looking up at him), but the actual meaning of the bit is something I don’t really understand.
The film as a whole ends up feeling kind of random, matching the episodic nature of the film’s storytelling structure, until Tati and his compatriots have to stop in a small town in the Netherlands to fix the camping car’s fender. It takes them more than a day to get it fixed, and it’s here that the overall point of the film begins to become clear. Throughout the film, we’ve seen the Apollo 11 mission on televisions in the foregrounds and backgrounds of shots. We’ve also been passing through beautiful country. We’ve seen Tati and his fellow passengers dismiss all of it because the speed of the road kept them from it. Stranded on a riverside, waiting for the English speaking mechanic to get around to fixing their car, they have to take the time to take in what’s going on around them. They can appreciate the look of the river, waving to the mechanic’s neighbors while they eat a meal with him. They can actually watch Neil Armstrong take his first steps on the moon and then mimic it out of admiration. They’ve been given a chance to slow down and take in the wonders of the world.
Given Tati’s previous two films, it would be a safe assumption that Tati’s view of the wonders of the world tended to be older, like ancient rivers or well-lived in houses. However, the inclusion of the Apollo moon mission expands that. Tati wasn’t a luddite completely. He admired the advancement of human technology, but he also seemed to think that giving into it completely was taking something away from the human experience. In PlayTime, it seemed to alienate people from each other. In Trafic, it seems to alienate people from the beautiful things, both natural and manmade, both old and new. Take time to see the world around you.
And the literal subject of the film, a race across several European nations to get to a car expo, is the perfect vehicle to attach this idea to. The story reinforces the point rather nicely that way.
It’s just unfortunate that much of the comedic stylings in the early parts of the film are just not that funny. They’re often nice and slightly amusing, but not much more than that. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that there’s dead space because Tati fills the screen with motion as much as he can, but it just doesn’t have the punch as something like the first half of PlayTime had.
I think it should also be noted that I think this is a thin metaphor for Tati’s own mental space as well. This is the first Hulot film where Hulot has a job, and it’s a designer of a new, fancy, and incredibly dense camping car that can do so much more than the outside look at it seems to indicate (there’s a fun scene where Tati gets to show off all of the features to border patrol police officers that surely inspired half of Wes Anderson’s entire imagination). They get to the expo, and it’s too late, it’s closed. Hulot’s creation is a financial flop because they never even got to show it off, and yet, Hulot is unbowed. He’s proud of his creation whether it was a financial success or not. If that’s not Tati reflecting back on the artistic merit and commercial failure of PlayTime, I don’t know what is.
It’s not his best work, but like everything else it has intelligence, a sweet hidden message, and plenty of laughs. Trafic is a nice farewell to the cinema from a master of comedic cinematic storytelling.