Directed by Jacques Tati
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1
Running Time: 97 minutes
Audio: Dolby Digital 1.0 mono French
MSRP: $ 39.95
Release Date: July 15, 2008
Review Date: July 15, 2008
Comic inspiration is running on fumes in Jacques Tati’s Trafic. The last of the masterful filmmaker’s movies featuring his hilarious comic character M. Hulot, Trafic certainly has some funny moments. Unlike the previous three Hulot films, however, the comedy here isn’t consistent, and there seem to be long gaps between humorous setups which have effective payoffs. Trafic shows the comic mastermind starting to wind down.
Parisian automobile firm Altra is making plans to transport its new camper/wagon to an international auto show in Amsterdam. Along for the ride are camper designer M. Hulot (Jacques Tati), continually complaining PR representative Maria (Maria Kimberly), the Altra truck driver (Marcel Franval), and two executives who are at the show waiting for their unusual creation to arrive: Altra director (Honoré Bostel) and his assistant Francois (Francois Maisongrosse). On the way to Amsterdam, the truck runs into every sort of imaginable trouble: a flat tire, an empty gas tank, a clutch that gives out, a misunderstanding at the border patrol checkpoint, a pileup at an intersection. Each of these is a set-up for potential comic business for Hulot and his cohorts. And the executives at the car show wait and wait and wait. . . .
In true Tati fashion, the dialogue attached to the film is of little practical purpose. The comic values lie in Tati’s visual style (lots of medium and long shots featuring interesting compositions of people, cars, highways, just about anything that can make for an interesting jumble) and, of course, for his slapstick concoctions and inventions: the massive wreck at a confusing intersection, the limitless number of gadgets built into Hulot’s sensational camper, a montage of people picking their noses while stuck in traffic. Observational comedy is Tati’s secret weapon, and it’s again on masterful display here.
Sad to say, though, there are long gaps between inspired set pieces, and some sequences (the mechanic and truck driver mimicking the low gravity maneuvers of the Apollo 12 astronauts who are on television, a collage of people at the car show opening and closing doors, hoods, and trunks in a symphony of noise, the men setting up the car show who seem like a sea of M. Hulots in long shot) fall very flat. Better are a couple of Hulot-centered sequences: demonstrating his unique camper, trying to replace a growth of ivy which he had pulled off of the front of an old home.
All in all, the horrific streams of traffic and the incredibly complicated network of roads that ebb and flow into one another seem very apt subjects for Tati’s good-natured ribbing. Too bad that his inspiration just seems to desert him periodically in this very uneven and somewhat disappointing last look at the beloved M. Hulot.
The film is presented in its 1.33:1 theatrical aspect ratio slightly windowboxed in Criterion’s customary style. It’s a very clean transfer (one look at the trailer and the clips contained in some of the documentaries on the disc will prove how much cleaning was needed and accomplished) but only of average sharpness and color saturation. Flesh tones are realistic if a tad pale, and black levels are again only slightly above average. The white subtitles are easy to read. The film has been divided into 20 chapters.
The Dolby Digital 1.0 mono audio track has cleaned up any age-related artifacts so that there is no hiss or any other problems. The audio level seems to be a bit low, however, and naturally fidelity is not paramount in a film of this age. The music has a hollow sound to it that isn’t particularly pleasing.
A Jacques Tati interview from a 1973 French television program is in particularly poor shape, but in this 14 ½-minute program, he discusses where he gets his ideas for his films and his notions about what makes for successful comedy.
Four members of the film cast are interviewed in a 1971 segment for the French TV show Le Journal du Cinéma. Maria Kimberly, Honoré Bostel, Marcel Franval, and Francois Maisongrosse have nothing but praise for their director even if he didn’t let them see a script until one was stolen off a table. The interview lasts 7 ½ minutes.
The original theatrical trailer, in fairly poor condition both aurally and visually, is offered here and runs 2 ¾ minutes.
Tati’s daughter Sophie Tatischeff presents In the Footsteps of M. Hulot, a two part 102 ½-minute documentary on her father tracing his show business career from the music halls as a young man through his early film work and right up to his award-winning creation of M. Hulot. The first part ends with the making of Mon Oncle. Part two picks up with that film’s triumphs at Cannes and the Oscars and goes right on through the remainder of his film career. Throughout there are interviews from a variety of sources and a generous selection of clips from all of his films.
An enclosed 14-page booklet contains a few stills from the film as well as a lengthy critique of Trafic by film critic Jonathan Romney.
While not among Jacques Tati’s greatest achievements, Trafic is nevertheless worth spending time with if only to bid a fond farewell to the beloved M. Hulot. Its humor and some of its pointed references to overcrowded highways and consumerism run rampant make it an interesting if flawed work of its master writer-director.