Review by Michael Jacobson
Stars: Jacques Tati, Maria
Kimberly, Marcel Franval, Tony Knepper
Director: Jacques Tati
Audio: Dolby Mono
Video: Full Frame 1.33:1
Features: See Review
Length: 97 Minutes
Release Date: July 15, 2008
ďThat really takes the cake.Ē
Playtime could have been the end of the line for both Jacques Tati and his immortal creation of M. Hulot. The ambitious, expensive film was a marvel of design and technique, but audiences used to the warmth and charm of Tati were a little alienated. Time has proved Tatiís extraordinary vision was and is a masterpiece, but in the aftermath, his studio went bankrupt and he lost ownership of his own movies.
But neither Tati nor Hulot were finished. A few years later, both would return for one last hurrah in the smaller and under-appreciated Trafic. Tati had to scale back his sense of grandeur, and as such, a great deal of his bemusement with modernity isnít there, but Hulot is, and just as amicable, charming, and accident prone as ever.
More than any of Tatiís previous Hulot installments, Trafic actually has some semblance of a plot outline. In it, M. Hulot is working as a designer for a French car company, and his latest creation, a camping car, is going to be the automakerís entry into a big industry show in Amsterdam. With a truck driver Marcel and a public relations person Maria (the actors keep their own names in the film), Hulot sets off on the road to the big event.
Itís a disaster almost immediatelyÖtheir truck has a flat and runs out of gas. An incident in customs forces them off the road for a while, as the trio dutifully demonstrates the camper car and its many wacky, wonderful gadgets for the agent. An accident leaves their show car impaired, forcing them to wait while a dry Dutch mechanic (Knepper) straightens it out.
And all of this is played against the ballet of traffic everywhere. Much of the film may remind you of the finale of Playtime in how cars and drivers interact with each other, but if you think about it, all of the Hulot films used cars for comedy, whether it was the gauche Arpel car and haywire automatic garage door in Mon Oncle or Hulotís own bizarre contraption in M. Hulotís Holiday. As he had done with modern architecture, Tati seems to find an amusing play in the streets with cars, cars and more cars.
Tatiís imagination has always seemed childlike to me, in that he seems to look at the same world we see every day, but with more wonder. His gift as an artist was the ability to express that wonder so that all who viewed his films could share in it. But his gift as a comedian was in his timing, his sharp construction of gags, and the ability to coax laughter out of very common everyday occurrences.
Most of his jokes are up to standard, with maybe only a couple of misfires. A sequence showing a string of shots of drivers picking their noses seemed a little beneath Tati for my taste, and one where some kids use a fur coat to make Maria believe she ran over her own dog was a little distasteful.
But for the most part, Trafic hearkens back to M. Hulotís Holiday, with simpler designs and a more intimate feel. There is more charm here than in Playtime, even if it lacks some of the brilliance. For my own part, my imagination always pictures Paris the way it appears in Tatiís films, from the ballet-like interaction in the streets to the quirky appeal of the characters. Paris is probably nothing like that, but even though Iíve seen dozens of French films in my career, I always like to think of France as being the way Tati presents it.
If nothing else, Trafic reminds us of the simplicity of Tatiís genius, and that he didnít need outlandish budgets or towering intricate sets to make us look at the world his way, or to laugh at it the way he wants us to. It may never have the same shine in comparison with his earlier works, but this film remains a fitting and funny farewell to one of cinemaís most beloved characters.
Criterion has done a terrific job with this filmÖit doesnít quite live up to the excellence of their earlier Tati releases, but still represents a vivid DVD reproduction, with solid coloring and a wonderful sense of detail throughout. You can see some spots and marks on the film negative here and there, but not much. Overall, a vibrant presentation.
The mono audio is suitable, and quite busy for a one-channel mix. Not a lot of dynamic range, but plenty of effects and a modern music theme that alone will remind you that this is a Jacques Tati production.
Thereís no commentary, but still plenty of features on this double disc release. The first disc contains the trailer and two television excerpts; one featuring an interview with Tati, the other with members of his cast discussing Trafic.
The second disc contains the full length two-part documentary ďIn the Footsteps of M. HulotĒ, made by Tatiís daughter Sophie. It chronicles the evolution of Tatiís beloved character, and shows plenty of interview footage, behind-the-scenes looks, photos, and even some of Tati on stageÖwonderful.
Trafic bids adieu to M. Hulot with humor and charm. Iím glad to see this less-honored gem from Jacques Tati get the recognition it deserves with a terrific Criterion DVD release.