For all the acclaim he has received, both popular and critical, how can it be that Jacques Tati still features so rarely on lists of, say, the ten greatest film directors? Is the reason as simple as the comedian’s curse, that condition that means that, no matter the greatness of the work itself, it will always be passed over in critical summations in favour of the ostensibly more ‘serious’ (usually meaning grave) film-maker’s work? It’s the only reason I can think of, and it’s a symptom of some seriously faulty, puritanical and conditioned outlooks on art. After all, one could easily argue that Tati’s Playtime says more of lasting (even radical) value to our contemporary lives during its runtime than Lars Von Trier, a ‘serious’ artist, has managed in the complete collection of his sadomasochistic parades of suffering, humiliation and violence. Tati deserves an even higher status than the one he currently enjoys because few film-makers have ever so thoroughly and so formally individualistically examined the modern, mechanical world and exposed its dehumanising nature, its ridiculous flaws and follies and its startling, alienating lack of logic and sense, while so skilfully suggesting alternatives in his sporadic but beautifully created moments of genuine human connection, bucolic returns to nature, spells of quietness and grace amongst the automated rush and explosions of collective (sometimes unintended) deconstructive rebellion. That he managed all this while remaining perhaps the funniest film-maker of all time is even more astounding.
All this is not to say that Trafic is his best film. Indeed, without having seen Parade (1973), I’d have to say it’s the weakest of his career, the least consistently successful, the only one with dry stretches rather than a continual progression of wonders. But, when it comes down to it, it’s still a Tati film and a Tati film means that there will always be a lot that is beautiful and a lot that lingers in the memory with a rare warmth and validation of observation.
The plot is relatively simple- M. Hulot, making a return for commercial reasons (Tati had grown tired of the character, but the French/Dutch producers wanted Hulot front and centre as a guarantee after the financially disastrous Playtime backgrounded him), has designed a experimental, eccentric camper van for a French car company. Now the prototype is complete he is given the task to escort it, alongside a mechanic, a salesman and a female American PR agent, to the Amsterdam Motor Show. Of course, as per Tati’s universe, only the salesman makes it while the show is open, the others encountering a series of roadblocks, accidents and detours.
The most beautiful part of the film grows out of the most lengthy of these detours, a sojurn with an alternately boorish and warm Dutch mechanic at his garage by a canal, our travellers split between sleeping in his houseboat and his garage alongside his family. Here, the film has some of the improvised-seeming spontaneity of Tati’s first two films, a sense of connection forged amongst nature and with a tangible connection to a wider community, despite language and cultural barriers, that recalls Renoir. No wonder that the American PR agent, treated with disdain for her self-absorbed distance and self-importance throughout the film, here finds her façade melted and her admiration and respect for Hulot growing.
Otherwise the film mostly and oddly feels like it could have been a demo run for Playtime, despite being made later. There’s the same sense of comedy being built out of the repetition of ridiculous mechanical sound effects and orchestrated, conformist movement through labyrinthine, commercialised space that occurs in Playtime, but that orchestration is less sure and less elaborate in this film. That’s not to suggest that Tati’s criticism of modern life is missing (indeed, the rushed pace of the film, in contrast to Tati’s other works, could be seen as a metacommentary on how the rushed pace of life today has now infiltrated and reshaped everything), and the film ably captures a sense of automated chaos which humans have created, but through which they now pass with great struggle and little understanding. There’s also a rich strain of anti-commercialism comedy, as Tati shows human beings beginning to resemble their automobiles in their movements and behaviours, the same automobiles they flock to see displayed in ridiculous, artificial fashion at the overwrought, flashy motor show. Their mindless, repetitive opening and closing of doors, boots and hoods in this show also reflects the mindlessness that takes them behind the wheel of their vehicles, demonstrated by the montages of cloudy-eyed nose-picking in traffic jams and incidents of road rage where the ordinary personality seems to have subsided in favour of the desperate desire to just keep moving forwards. You still get the feeling from this film that, were Tati around today, he would find nothing funnier than the system of automated self-service checkout points that have been installed in supermarkets apparently for speed and convenience, and also so that supermarkets have to pay less cashiers, but which still need intervention from those same former-cashiers in order to function correctly at all. It’s the conflicts of this mode of thinking- convenience and speed for money and convenience’s sake, even when it saves little money and offers little convenience- and this clash of the robotic and the human that Tati mines so well throughout his work.
Jonathan Romney, in his notes for the film included on the DVD points out, however, that Trafic contains less actual gags than any of Tati’s films before, and that the comedy emerges more from a sense of overall, overwhelming funniness in the very functioning of the world today. Indeed, the success rate of the gags that do appear is lower (and the gags themselves are sometimes crueller) than in Tati’s previous films, the ballets of comic movement and destruction sometimes seeming a little tired (such as in Hulot’s adventures with foliage and house decoration at a house near the Dutch garage), even with such successful sequences as the major car-crash and it’s spinning and wheelie-ing vehicles, and the demonstration of the camper van’s many trick attributes and compartments in the police holding garage (in terms of the number of individual gags, probably the densest stretch of the film). Then there are smaller, minor gags that seem curiously under-developed and half-finished, lacking the spark and resonance of even the tiniest jokes in previous Tati features. This is not to say the film is necessarily lacking in observations, situations and portraits of behaviour that make us laugh, but simply that the balance between those that do make us laugh and those that do not is somewhat more even than in the past.
However, even amongst the distanced and alienating nature of these scenes of the mechanical and the commercial, there remains a great pleasure simply in looking at Trafic. Tati’s compositions here are not as full of depth and incident as those in Playtime, the feeling that each long shot and take, and every actor within it, is being led by a composer twirling his baton as much as a conventional film director shouting instructions from his megaphone is lessened. But these shots are still so artfully composed, so full of rich colour and the perfect placement of a character or an action against a landscape, that they an almost visceral treat, as pugent as those of any master you’d like to mention. Indeed, here we are in a possession of a final shot so perfect that it almost makes the rest of the film redundant, so powerfully and completely does it makes it’s point and sum up all that has preceded as we watch scattered humans try to pick their way through an impossible, illogical gridlock of machines. We are also reminded in the sequences set amongst nature in Trafic that Tati has always been one of its greatest film-makers, as capable of capturing its vitality, its liberating freshness as he is capable of capturing it’s flip-side, the hollowness, the overbearing titanic quality of our contemporary cities of glass and steel. On the grass by the canal water, the frantic rush and push stops, and for once we feel grateful and free, on the verge of the simple leisure we desire. Tati was incapable of making a bad film, it seems, and even a lesser offering is both a small, treasured gift and a valuable antidote.