Friday, March 19, 2010

Trafic (Jacques Tati, 1971)

Jacques Tati’s Trafic was released the same year as Monte Hellman’s Two-Lane Blacktop, an existential American road movie of wide stretches of pavement—the three main characters can get where they need to go but they exist in a sort of stasis without having a real destination. Trafic has a more humorously skeptical view of automobiles; Mr. Hulot and his team have an urgent destination, but are thwarted at every turn by border control, car pile-ups, gas shortages breakdowns, and, of course, traffic. Cars are constantly coming close to crashing and traffic signals are always faltering; the blaring sounds of the car radio encroaching on the score and drivers in a perpetual state of boredom. Not nearly as funny as the three previous Hulot films, not surprising given the financial disaster of Playtime four years before, but it has plenty of echoes of Mon Oncle and Playtime especially. Roads, cars and gas stations chop up the countryside, hearkening back to Mon Oncle’s dichotomy between the rustic and the modern. Many visual cues from Playtime are peppered throughout—streetlights, homogenized parking lots, car windows producing the same effect as Paris’s glass doors—and the Amsterdam car show begins as the Paris airport, a vacant delineated space whose silence is only interrupted by a monotone female voice over loudspeakers, before it blossoms into a chaotic swarm of people and objects. The most poetic scene in the film comes toward the end, when instead of rushing to Amsterdam to show off their camper car, Hulot, Maria, Marcel, and the mechanic they have found take advantage of their nifty little vehicle near the bank of a river for a little picnic; for one brief instance they have forgotten the mad racetrack of the highway and their obligations to the automotive company, choosing instead to bask in the quaint stillness of each other’s company. The ending, in its own small way, is as lyrical and vivacious as that of Playtime, and is one of my favorite scenes out of all the Hulot films. Even on a commercial low-budget project, Tati finds it in him to create a poetic fusion between modernity and antiquity, and that is why Trafic remains great, if not at the heights of its predecessors.

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