The last of his four comedies featuring his indelible alter ego Monsieur Hulot, Jacques Tati’s Trafic serves as a scaled-down but inescapably fitting companion piece to its predecessor, the monumental Playtime, whose disastrous commercial reception necessitated a smaller, faster-incubating project to keep Tati’s movie career alive. But Trafic doesn’t seem to suffer from pandering or artistic compromise; its meticulously framed images are stuffed with the recognizably choreographed chaos, entropic mayhem and long-lens potshots at humanity fumbling with mechanization that are its ringmaster’s signature. If Playtime‘s enormous scope was visionary, here Tati’s tone is that of a bemused, unshakably certain philosopher.
Opening with a montage of chassis, tires and engines assembled at an auto plant, Trafic finds Hulot employed as a designer of cars for the hapless Altra company, soon to exhibit their latest model at an Amsterdam trade show. (Startling as it is initially to find Hulot as an industrial brain-for-hire, it makes intuitive sense; a mechanical creator’s whirring mind could plausibly be powering that eccentric, stutter-stepped lope and gracious clumsiness.) But the new Altra, outfitted for camping expeditions with hideaway extras from a cooking grill to a bed for two, may never reach the show—the dilapidated truck bearing it repeatedly breaks down, then is detained by Dutch police for running a border checkpoint. Tati continually cuts from the repair efforts of the Altra staffers (with American model Maria Kimberly as a PR head who slowly sheds her prima donna tendencies) to the Amsterdam expo, set in a massive hangar-like space populated by odd shoppers, harried staffers and the marooned Altra chief, who impatiently waits in an empty mock-campsite floorspace to the recorded accompaniment of tweeting birds.
Despite the plot, Trafic isn’t essentially a “road comedy,” and much of the last third neglects any will-they-make-it suspense in favor of a leisurely respite at a Dutch mechanic’s rural house. Tati occasionally uses the auto industry and the highway odyssey of Hulot and his colleagues for setup-and-payoff-structured gags, but the willful self-insulation of motorists is the root of his grand joke; it’s not particularly an “anti-car satire” any more than Playtime was anti-modern-architecture (as Tati argues in the DVD set’s extras). Drivers are seen contagiously engaging in nose-picking, yawning, developing physical tics to the swish of their windshield wipers and, after a balletic and mildly violent chain collision, leaving their vehicles to stretch in post-cataclysmic calisthenics. Passing through a service station, they’re presented with cheap neoclassical busts as promotional swag. On the road for business or pleasure, they’re just trapped bourgeois creatures of habit, like the vacationers or office-dwellers in Tati’s earlier films.
Trafic is even less apt than the first three Hulot comedies at provoking big fits of laughter, instead favoring a cumulative, freeform charm, as when a mechanic and a truck driver mimic the light-gravity walk and slowed movements of the Apollo astronauts they’ve been watching on TV. When Tati does go for an off-road, unspectacular gag, it can be a slightly outrageous camouflage of a baby’s bum, or a protractedly cruel dead-dog prank (perpetrated by some slovenly period youths). But if the reduced share of hearty yuks is a fair tradeoff for Trafic‘s formalist powers of observation, it can shine with M. Hulot’s Holiday and Mon Oncle as supporting jewels in its maker’s short filmography.