In 10 Words or Less
The easy life isn't on the open road
Likes: Jacques Tati, M. Hulot
Dislikes: The lack of choreographed comedy today
Hates: Traffic (not any of the movies)
It's never easy to let go of a beloved character, but sometimes, there's just nowhere left to go with the concept. Given time though, a fresh approach and an open mind can bring a character back to new life, like we've seen with Christopher Nolan's Batman films or Francis Ford Coppola's take on Dracula. Perhaps it's time to do the same for M. Hulot, Jacques Tati's amiable wanderer, who last led us through humanity's foibles, umbrella in hand, pipe in mouth, in 1971's Trafic.
The quasi silent-film adventures of M. Hulot (played with devine aloofness and master timing by Tati himself) always served to observe the most universal of behaviors in specific environments, be they vacation spots (M. Hulot's Holiday) or soulless architecture (Playtime.) M. Hulot, by virtue of his somewhat aimless travels, finds himself in any number of off-kilter situations, but manages to keep a positive demeanor throughout. We never learn much about him, but we don't really need to, as he's just our guide into these worlds, and when the credits roll, he'll still be the same guy we met when the film started, right down to his hat and jacket.
Here, M. Hulot is a a car designer for Altra, a car manufacturer looking to launch a new vehicle at the International Autoshow. Unfortunately, and predictably, considering Hulot is involved, the car is extremely delayed, and doesn't actually work. So in order to get it from France to Amsterdam for the show, they have to load the new car on the back of a beat-up truck and drive it there, with no time to spare. So Hulot, the driver and Maria, the company's high-strung public relations woman, hit the road, and hit many obstacles along the way, including break-downs and a border incident. By putting this trio on the road, the film can then put the camera on drivers and the odd behaviors that come with cars. It's an appropriate B-side to Playtime and following the bombast of that film, it's a return to the intimacy of his earlier films and an excellent bookend with M. Hulot's Holiday for the Hulot universe.
It's not unusual for a Hulot film, but there's not much of a story here, as the trip is really just the conceit used to string together an unending parade of gags, set pieces and montages that range from smile-inducing to very funny. The biggest of these scenes is a major chain-reaction accident that spreads out from Hulot's truck, but it's rather artificial in how it plays out, robbing it of some of its comedic effect. That it's followed by an odd bit with the victims stretching and wandering, as Hulot runs around checking on everyone, doesn't help, as there's a lack of motivation from all involved. The same goes for a scene at customs where Hulot and the driver show officials how all of the new car's features work. It's the only time we really see what's so interesting about the car, but it's done one after another after another, so it's got the naturalness of a shopping list (plus, the fact that the truck driver seems to know every detail of this new car makes little sense as well.) The smaller, less obvious gags tend to work better, like the astronaut-inspired repair moment, even if they don't result in big laughs. They just feel more real, which is truly Tati's strength.
Also working against the film is the character of Maria, who is beyond over the top as the PR agent, thanks in large part to a weak performance by Maria Kimberly, who acts with the subtlety of a hammer to the face as her character learns to unwind, thanks to Hulot's influence. Yes, Hulot films are marked by exaggerated physicality, but the scene where she reacts to finding her dog under her car features one of the worst performances I've ever seen. It's practically parody, especially when played opposite a master like Tati. Fortunately, she's not a key part of the film, and can be somewhat ignored in favor of the more inventive moments and the generally well-shot visuals, which really are impressive for a comedy. The final shot of the film alone is frame-worthy, and puts an odd cap on the film, even while it illustrates the whole point of the movie.
Packaged in a clear, single-width keepcase with overlapped disc wells, a dual-sided cover and a 16-page booklet, Trafic arrives with a two-disc set that features the traditionally understated, yet artistic design Criterion is known for. The automobile design-inspired menus are static and full-frame and offer up a choice to watch the film, select scenes, adjust languages and check out the extras. There are no audio options, while subtitles are available in English, though there's no closed captioning.
The film is presented in a pictureboxed format, so there are borders on all four sides of the image, preserving the 1:1.33 aspect ratio of the film. The image is impressively crisp for its age, with overall bright color and a nice level of fine detail. There's no distracting dirt or damage and no issues with compression artifacts, though there are some jittery spots early on that seem to be a source issue.
The audio delivers the mono soundtrack cleanly via the center channel, presenting the mostly light, whimsical score (with one rocking sequence) cleanly and without the distortion. The dialogue, which is in French, English and Dutch, isn't quite as upfront, making it easy to miss what's said, but the film isn't really about the talking. The sound effects, on the other hand, can be obnoxiously loud in comparison, seemingly in an attempt to hammer home some jokes.
There are just three extras on the first DVD, starting with a 1973 episode of "Morceaux de bravoure," which sees Tati interviewed by Andre Halimi. The footage isn't in great shape, but the simplicity of the interview, titled "The Comedy of Jacques Tati," makes it work extremely well, as Tati basically gives Halimi a class on physical acting, which shows just what a brilliant student of humanity Tati was. It's followed by seven minutes from a 1971 episode of "Le journal du cinema," with the cast of Trafic talking about their experiences in making the film and working with Tati. It's an interesting bit of archival material, and is extremely relaxed, compared to most such interviews today, as the group jokes around and shows they are funny on their own, away from Tati's direction.
Also on the first disc is the theatrical trailer for the film, which looks great as well, and shows how difficult it was to sell a movie about a guy who doesn't really talk much.
The second disc holds the final extra, the 1989 documentary "In the Footsteps of M. Hulot," from Tati's daughter Sophie. Compiling two hours of footage of Tati from interviews and appearances, with on-set photos and some behind-the-scene film, the two-part feature combines a biography of Tati with the story of M. Hulot, to give you a rather complete view of Tati and his work, mostly directly from his own mouth. The pace of the film is purposefully languid, like Hulot himself, and allows a nostalgic, emotional feel to develop. It's an excellent introduction to the man and his creation, but holds plenty of value for his fans as well.
As usual, there's an impressive booklet included, which has info about the film, along with a lengthy essay by film critic Jonathan Romney that breaks down and analyzes the film in detail. But while these extras are very nice, I have to ask, why is there no introduction from Monty Python's Terry Jones? After providing video intros for the other three Tati entries in the Criterion Collection, I expected to hear from him here.
The Bottom Line
Trafic isn't the finest of Tati's films, but it has all the hallmarks of one of his movies, and is full of the fun moments and amusing observations his fans expect. The uninitiated, though, might struggle with the subtlety of many gags and the disconnect between the film's set-ups. The DVD is another quality outing from Criterion, with fine quality and extras that boast quality over quantity. Anyone who enjoys classic comedy, especially the kind that involves elaborate set-ups and physical gags, will want to check this one out, while Tati fans can't help but pick this set up.
Francis Rizzo III is a native Long Islander, where he works in academia. In his spare time, he enjoys watching hockey, writing and spending time with his wife, daughter and puppy.Check out 1106 - A Moment in Fictional Time or follow him on Twitter
*The Reviewer's Bias section is an attempt to help readers use the review to its best effect. By knowing where the reviewer's biases lie on the film's subject matter, one can read the review with the right mindset.