Trafic (1971)

Jacques Tati | 1hr 37min

They say that dogs often look like their owners, but in the modern world of Trafic where automobiles become companions to humans on their endless journeys to nowhere, Jacques Tati cannot help noting the shared characteristics between them. One suited man sits in a black Mercedes-Benz, puffing on a cigar while his windscreen wipers drag themselves in slow, steady motions. Elsewhere, some other wipers on a car driven by a senile old man weakly twitch on the verge of breaking down, another pair clearing the vision of two chattering women match their flappy hand gestures with equal erraticism, and those on a hippy truck seem to groove along in rhythmic unison. In Tati’s magnificently whimsical worlds, characters are not defined by their personal thoughts and feelings, but by the modernist infrastructure around them, acting as extensions of their own idiosyncratic personalities.

Cars used as extensions of people, connecting humanity to their inefficient, idiosyncratic machines.

By that logic, it follows that these new technologies aren’t the faultless solutions to contemporary living that they are cracked up to be – if humans are inherently flawed, then so too are their creations. Therein lies the perfect entrance for the bumbling Monsieur Hulot in his fourth and final film appearance, this time as a car designer with a new model to show off at an auto show in Amsterdam. Quite appropriately, this vehicle is as unorthodox as its owner, being created for the specific purpose of camping with a shaver built into the steering wheel and the front grille transforming into a literal barbeque grill. It is nothing less than the product of a mad inventor, acting on his own creative impulses untethered from conventional notions of what customers think they need, or what businesses think will make them money.

It is quite fortunate that this is the car Hulot and his publicity agent, Maria, are stuck with on their cross-country drive to the auto show, especially as it proves to be a hit with the police officers who impound the vehicle for failing to stop at border control. The reason is simple enough – the wave the custom guards give to stop them is simply taken as a friendly greeting, and this misunderstanding quickly escalates into one of many major delays encountered on their journey. Tati delights in devolving ordered arrangements of road travel into beautiful chaos all through Trafic, expertly choreographing one freeway pile-up like a comical ballet of cars impressively balancing on their front wheels, pirouetting off to the side, and bonnets flapping up and down of their own accord. In the aftermath, about a dozen drivers stumble out of their damaged vehicles in a confused daze, and without any notion of what to do next, silently begin stretching their limbs and cleaning up the minimal debris with a dustpan broom.

An expertly choreographed freeway pile-up plays like a comic ballet of cars performing complex dance moves.

Inane as it is, the rigid order that we impose upon ourselves through car and traffic systems evidently cannot stand to be broken, making virtually every aspect of automobile culture the perfect target for Tati’s satire, from the hardcore fans to the everyday drivers. It goes without saying that his framing of physical gags in wide shots is consistently seamless in playing with our perspective of specific events, such as Hulot stepping into a car at the auto show, before swiftly revealing the punchline we couldn’t see before, like flipping that car upside-down to expose it as a bisected display vehicle.

The silent cinema influence is showing in Tati’s framing of these gags in wide shots, framed perfectly to conceal the full context of the scene until the punchline.

But Tati also does not get enough credit as a skilled montagist, particularly displaying his talent here in matching the rhythms of his cutting to the mechanical routines of cars and humans. In the opening credits, the automobile manufacturing facility chugs its machinery along to consistent, comical beats, and later Tati turns the tedium of rush hour into an amusing sequence that simply observes drivers picking their noses and yawning, as if bound by common ritual. Such arbitrary customs extend into the auto show as well where he plays his mise-en-scène like an orchestra, opening and slamming car boots in syncopated patterns, and swallowing up an entire crowd of enthusiasts collectively sticking their heads under a single bonnet.

The opening montage at the automobile factory setting a rhythm carried through the film in its sound design and editing – Tati plays the mise-en-scène like an orchestra.
Social satire caught in these images with machines literally swallowing up humans.

Trafic may not possess the sheer ambition of Tati’s previous films, least of all the monumental feat of production design that is Playtime, but his resourcefulness remains as remarkable as ever in picking apart humanity’s absurd and futile attempts at progress. Within the mere image of heavy traffic, he uncovers an endlessly rich source of satirical material, recognising that the attempts of those drivers trying to get somewhere while helplessly sitting in stagnant crowds of high-tech metal boxes may be the ultimate paradox of an inept modern society.

The perfect paradox of modern society – these machines designed to push us into the future keep us rooted to the spot.

Trafic is currently available to stream on The Criterion Channel.

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