If Stanley Kubrick's sense of humor contained a hidden soft side, I can easily imagine him being a founding member of a Jacques Tati fan club. In Tati's soufflé-light comedies we see that Kubrick-like meticulous timing and clinically controlled directing style. The precisely visualized settings and environments. That dispassionate, observant eye cast toward our impersonal steel-and-glass world and its sometimes coolly mechanized components and technology. Granted, Tati's fastidious genius would never have led to a movie as blackly humored and punctuated with exclamation marks as Dr. Strangelove. But Kubrick could not have gently humanized his satirical soul in a comic creation such as Tati's eccentric and befuddled Monsieur Hulot, who punctuates Tati's observations with a just-so acute accent.
A mime, director, and actor, Tati cast himself as M. Hulot in four movies -- Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot (1953, Mr. Hulot's Holiday in the USA), Mon Oncle (1959, Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film), his masterpiece Playtime (1967), and Trafic (1971). Like a character from the earlier era of Chaplin and Keaton (two of Tati's acknowledged influences), Hulot is comically at odds with the people and things he encounters in his misadventures in the modern world. His signature trenchcoat, high-water pants, pipe (smokeless), hat, and tipsy-flamingo walk make him immediately recognizable, as does the umbrella he always carries but doesn't open until the end of the final Hulot film, Trafic. He interacts with the world -- especially in the earlier films -- with an obliviousness that's childlike in a way that underscores how much our world may have grown too "adult" for our own good. Rowan Atkinson's Mr. Bean is an exaggerated descendant of M. Hulot.
Trafic opens in an automobile factory, the camera probing the assembly lines like a sigmoidoscope as metal sheets are machine-formed and fitted for the mobile prefab boxes we spend so much of our life in. Trafic ends, suitably, with an enormous traffic jam in the rain, with pedestrians unfurling their umbrellas and, as the camera pulls up and back to widen the scene, maneuvering with an air of newfound freedom between the stuck and dismal-looking vehicles. That's not a spoiler, because in the breezy vapor that amounts to the movie's plot, it's not the destination that counts, but the leisurely, amiably aimless travel you take getting there.
Between the factory and that vast poetic parking lot, we travel with Hulot -- for the first time with a job, in this case an automotive designer -- as he encounters one problem after another while driving to Amsterdam in his tricked-out state-of-the-art super-camper. Within the camper's telescoping body there's a shaver in the steering wheel, a shower in the rear, an automated kitchen that still needs work, seatbelts that convert to the driver's suspenders, auto-inflating beds under the robo-positioned TV, etc. Hulot's road-trip companion is a lovely American publicist named Maria Kimberly (played by American fashion model Maria Kimberly, a dreadful over-actress). Their goal is to present the camper at a prestigious Amsterdam auto show for their Paris employer, Altra Motors. To say that comic frustrations ensue gives away no secrets.
Trafic is packed with subtle, sly recurring visual and aural gags. A gas station insists on gifting customers with plaster busts of historical figures. Pay attention to Maria's costume changes. Watch how the vehicles and their occupants move and react with each other during the ballet choreography of the multi-car pileup. Listen to the anthropomorphic sighs and wheezes certain cars exude, as if commenting on us behind our backs. The windshield wipers that mimic the humans seated behind them. These little gags counterpoint the way Tati peppers Trafic with vehicles that have been crashed, smashed, burned out, or junked onto scrap-metal mountains. It's not until the end, with a world crammed belly-to-butt with cars and their willfully trapped occupants, that he shows that even when surrounded by our car-culture obsessions we could, if we choose, break free and simply get where we're going by walking through the non-prefab rain with a pretty girl on our arm.
Tati once said that the aim of his comedies was not to send us rolling in the aisles with one-liners and stock situations. Instead he strived to "turn regular life into a gag." The gag may be on us, but we still get to enjoy the sweet ride.
Criterion's marvelous two-disc edition of Trafic comes with a newly restored high-definition digital transfer and a new English subtitle translation. Criterion's usual rich trove of extras starts on the first disc with a pair of TV interviews. The first is a 1971 interview with the supporting cast of Trafic, from the French television program Le journal de cinéma. Then in "The Comedy of Jacques Tati," a 1973 episode from the French television program Morceaux de bravoure, the filmmaker himself discusses his influences -- his background in the vaudevillian music halls, the "real settings" that are so important to his movies, pantomime as "the purest means of expression," the work of Chaplin, Keaton, and Woody Allen -- and takes the opportunity to display his skill at on-the-spot humor.
On Disc Two we get In the Footsteps of Monsieur Hulot (1989), a two-part documentary by his daughter, Sophie Tatischeff, exploring Tati's life and tracing the evolution of his beloved alter ego. It provides generous amounts of archival interview footage, behind-the-scenes looks at Playtime and Trafic, plus footage of Tati's early stage routine.
Rounding off Criterion's DVD are the theatrical trailer and a new essay on Tati and Trafic by film critic Jonathan Romney.