Jacques Tati’s jokes float on the funny bone like champagne fizzles the tongue – no megaton punchline, just a slowly dawning realization that the world is a funny place. The semi-comic arena he crafts for his punctilious everyman Mr. Hulot is full of petty yet mild misunderstandings, disobedient technology, and a gentle whiff of modern alienation – nothing at Kafkaesque strength, just a bemused shrug at how thumbed apes like the human race can craft a habitat for themselves that’s just slightly beyond our ability to wrangle it into submission.
It makes sense that Tati would want to give the automobile the same treatment he gave the big city in his 1967 effort “Play Time,” and “Trafic” (1971) is an extended road trip into our relationship with cars – as writer Jonathan Romney quotes Tati in the DVD’s liner notes, “I’m simply trying to show that individuals change when they’re behind the wheel of a car.” But why is the end result so curiously flat? There’s such a rich treasure trove of satirical material here, but Tati’s tack is subtle and dry to the point of nonexistence. Barring a few brilliant and surprising sight gags, “Trafic” is a long slog through parched and flat terrain.
The story opens as the Altra Automotives factory in France is readying for a big auto show in Amsterdam. They’re unveiling a new camping van, one so sophisticated it brings all the comforts of home into the great outdoors, and the crew is loading the delivery truck with ersatz birch trees and reel-to-reel tape recordings of chirping birds to decorate their stall at the auto show. But there’s one snag after another on the trip, from mechanical breakdowns to the van being impounded by Dutch police (they want a tour of each of its whimsical features, from a front grill that transforms into a barbecue to a horn that doubles as an electric razor), retarding the progress of art director Hulot (Tati) and a supercilious “public relations” professional (Maria Kimberley).
Tati deftly threads a recurring theme of nature usurped by technology throughout his gags, from the laughably fake “forest” trucked to the auto show, to the Apollo 11 mission launching and orbiting, its fuselage and the surface of the moon replaying on multiple television screens. And Tati (in his 60s) shows no creakiness of age, either in daring stunts amidst zooming cars and busy highways or in the trademark elastic, forward-pointing stride of Mr. Hulot.
But there’s something missing, even accounting for how French comedies whisper where American comedies shriek: where are the jokes? Viewers accustomed to their sharp attention being rewarded in Tati’s other deft comedies like “Mr. Hulot’s Holiday” (1953) and “Mon Oncle” (1958) will slowly grow confused as minutes tick by without even the slowly spreading payoff of a diffuse and cerebral gag. Yes, it’s true – people pick their noses in their cars when no one’s watching. And yes, when (and how) Tati points this out, it’s sly, deft, and clever. But this is a 97-minute movie, and viewers deserve more revelation than that.
That’s where the extras come to the rescue: included in this 2-DVD set is a well-crafted documentary directed by Sophie Tatischeff (Tati’s daughter) about the life and career of her visionary father. It’s charming, and whets the appetite for more vintage Tati in a way that’s sustaining and exciting. Do yourself a favor – skip “Trafic,” watch the documentary, and have another Tati movie handy for dessert.