One of the finest filmmakers that France has ever produced, Jacques Tati’s work in the comedy genre has influenced newer generations of filmmakers ranging from Wes Anderson to David Lynch. His 1967 masterpiece Playtime is often regarded as his magnum opus but Trafic occupies a unique space in his illustrious filmography. It is the final film in Tati’s famous Monsieur Hulot series as well as one of the final projects he ever completed. After half a century, does Trafic’s comedic value still exist?
The reason why Monsieur Hulot (played by Tati himself) is one of the immortal characters of cinema is because of the universality of his central conflict. Inspired by the vaudevillian antics of silent films and the philosophical problems of modernity, Hulot is a man who is guided by a moral compass that does not belong to such a rapidly changing world. Despite the fact that his actions are always well-intentioned, Hulot finds himself stumbling through the constructs of this new world to great comic effect. In doing so, he developed a connection with viewers from the past who were also having trouble adapting to these dizzying changes.
In an interview, Tati explained: “Hulot is the guy you recognise because he was in the same barracks as you, even though he never became a close friend. He gives you the illusion of familiarity, which really doesn’t exist. He develops into a real person only when you bump into him by accident one night… By creating Hulot, Tati aims to re-establish a distance. From the start, Hulot is someone who exists only in the eyes and mouths of the beholder. He is someone who awakens suspicion or amused attention… Hulot is a blurred man, a passer-by, a Hulotus errans.”
Originally intended to be a TV film, Trafic’s set-up is simple enough. The film features Hulot as a revolutionary automobile designer who has successfully created a futuristic camper-car. It is equipped with a pull-out barbecue, soap dispenser, chairs and tables that can be rolled out from the body of the car itself, an in-car television, a hair trimmer that emerges from the steering wheel as well as a shower that has hot water. The car also has the unique ability to elongate its body in order to accommodate anyone who wants to sleep inside. Considering the scope of this invention, anyone would believe that making such a vehicle would be the hard part. However, Tati rejects such a simplistic notion for the sake of comedy and the result is a brilliant caper.
Trafic presents a hilarious duality, a world where a man is capable of such ingenuity but is equally capable of catastrophically failing at the simple things. The company decides to showcase Hulot’s invention at an international automobile expo in Amsterdam and the team embarks on an epic quest to introduce the whole world to their impressive achievement, led by a fiery PR agent named Maria (played by Maria Kimberly). Along the way, they encounter every obstacle possible. From the mundane routines of traffic jams to being chased by customs officers, Hulot engages in a delightfully frustrating romp. Tati utilised the cinematic medium to its fullest, combining the potency of visual comedy with the amplification of sound effects. We see Hulot participating in a foot race for gas and hanging upside down from the side of a house, advancing Tati’s unique brand of absurdism.
Like his previous works, Tati uses this simple story to launch an attack on the incomprehensible rituals of modern society. He compares the news reports of the moon landing to the lives of people who are still stuck on Earth, indifferent and annoyed. Tati rightly said: “For them, the moon flight isn’t a great achievement; in relation to their private lives, it’s a flop.” His genius lies in his ability to extract comedy from the monotony of life. People yawning and picking their noses while sitting in their cars is a very effective way to visually convey the overwhelming ennui, a civilisation that has an abundance of technological marvels but is being hemmed in by its own walls. In a world that is bogged down with bureaucracy and the indolence of modern subjects, people only feel alive when they experience an event like a traffic accident. Just like automatons, they slowly gyrate back to life.
Tati’s investigations explore the performative nature of consumerism and the validity of the term ‘progress’. Instead of violently attacking such concepts with a charged vision, the filmmaker uses the exaggeration of the comic genre to subtly dismantle such fallacies. Hulot may not be as adept at surviving modernity as most people but he retains his individuality, as opposed to the people who sit in almost identical automobiles and share indistinguishable routines. In a fascinating interview with Jonathan Rosenbaum, Tati poignantly put it: “When you become so remote from what’s designed for you, the human connections between people start to go.”