In context with the rest of Tati’s work, Trafic is disappointing. As its own film, it fails to hit its stride until late into the film, leaving a lot of low, slow scenes that lack zest or life. While there are certainly trappings of Tati’s work, it’s disappointingly his most straightforward fictional feature film.
Monsier Hulot (Jacques Tati) is the designer of a sensational camping car. Set to be shown at the Amsterdam car show, Hulot and several coworkers begin the road trip but stumble into all sorts of difficulties along the way. As the group’s new American PR agent Maria (Maria Kimberly) tries to relay ahead their impending delay, Hulot is left finding problem after problem as the road trip takes on a slower and slower pace.
Perhaps the greatest disappointment of Trafic is that most of its comedic gags are lame physical pratfalls. In comparison to Tati’s other films where humor is built out of miscommunication, misappropriation or misunderstanding, the comedy here goes for goofy mannerisms and pratfalls that quickly deflate and aren’t funny.
Also disappointing is how straightforward everything is. The plot is a series of events that happen along this road trip, but without any real meat or life too much that happens along the way. It’s not a scenic road trip, neither are the side events at most of the stops particularly interesting. Most of the side characters also lack any personality, more set-dressing than anything else.
However, the film picks itself up and finds some new life in the final act. It’s a divergence from the rest of the film, but the side-trail gives the film a sense of place that allows it to produce some memorable, comedic moments that are sorely lacking for most of the preceding runtime.
And even as lackluster as most of the film is, it’s fun to see M. Hulot again. Knowing that he has a job, albeit one that he might not be doing all that well, is nice after spending three films watching him fumble through the world without any idea of how he gets by day to day. The film also gives him a lovely send off that also plays into some of the iconicity of his character.
Where Trafic functions best is in revealing the absurdity of modern life. The camper car is a great symbol of novelty that certainly has a function, but in trying to pack in so much utility, it’s almost goofy how crammed together everything is. Also, the image of gridlocked traffic in such a pattern that it’s unclear how any of it could even hope to get uncongested. Modern life is filled with so much busyness, that everyone becomes gridlocked, everyone in a hurry but ultimately going nowhere.
While that thematic thread is strong, it’s one note and works at the detriment to the rest of the film. The final act picks up the slack left by the rest of the film. In contrast with Playtime, Trafic felt like it went too far to the other end and the result is something so simple it borderlines on insubstantial. There’s still enough there to make it a decent film, but it falls well short of the greatness of the other Hulot films.
© 2014 James Blake Ewing