[31 July 2008]

By Kate Spatola

In the vast marketplace that comprises world cinema, comedy is not an easily exportable product.  Action flicks, superheroes, cartoons and horror films are more often relied on to deliver the goods and draw international audiences into their local cinemas.  Outside specific sub-genres (like broad, physical-based comedy or romantic comedy), the humor of many comedic films seems to quickly and easily get lost in translation.  The commercial and financial success of many of today’s top Hollywood’s comedic stars—Adam Sandler, Will Ferrell, Owen Wilson, and Vince Vaughn—seems limited to the shores of the United States, as their films routinely earn significantly less (on average) abroad than they do at home. 

Comedic film stars, historically speaking, who have enjoyed success and a truly international acclaim—brought about from their skilled artistry as performers and their unique ability to brand an indelible presence or character into the heart of popular culture—are a very select (i.e., ridiculously and shamefully small) group.  If pressed to name such stars, many cinemagoers would undoubtedly recite the usual suspects: Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Peter Sellers. 

One name that rightfully belongs on that short list of international comedy heavyweights is Jacques Tati, the acclaimed French filmmaker, writer and star.  Outside of Europe his name may not be as widely known and his work not as commercially familiar to general movie-going audiences, but the strength of Tati’s talent and his lasting artistic contributions to world cinema are indisputable.

Tati made his name as a filmmaker by creating, writing, directing and otherwise wholly immersing himself in the role of Mr. Hulot.  As with many iconic comedic characters, Mr. Hulot is the humorous assemblage of a lovable gentleman who is constantly bemused, slightly rumpled, quietly absurd and seemingly caught in a perpetual state of awe.  Standing refreshingly outside the swirling and chaotic center of modern day life, Mr. Hulot’s life is one of observation, simple joys, humorous frustrations and quiet pleasures.
Mr. Hulot’s genesis from humble supporting character (in Tati’s 1949 film Jour de fête) to his rapturous full-feature debut in 1953’s Mr. Hulot’s Holiday introduced to an international audience the singular humor, joy and brilliance of Jacques Tati’s imagination.  In further films, such as Mon Oncle (which won an Academy Award in 1959) and his tortured 1967 grand masterpiece, Playtime, Tati managed to establish and cement his rightful place alongside the comedy legends of cinema. 

It is fitting that Trafic is Mr. Hulot’s final outing on the silver screen.  For this is a film about the unadorned beauty, endless frustrations, simple charms and unexpected comedy found in undertaking a journey.  The story centers on Mr. Hulot—this time incarnating a French car designer for Altra, a fictitious automobile firm—as he, the company’s trusty driver (Marcel Fraval) and a hired American public relations associate (Maria Kimberly) attempt to deliver Altra’s showpiece car from its workshop in Paris to Amsterdam’s auto show.

Mr. Hulot’s master design is actually a road camper outfitted with so many ridiculous and ingenious gadgets it seems almost secondary whether the car is functional as a means of transportation.  Encased in a large truck for delivery, the prized vehicle remains under wraps until it can arrive safely at the auto show and make its grand debut to what everyone believes will be a rapturous and adoring audience.  That the road from Paris to Amsterdam is paved with unforeseen roadblocks, absurd delays and ridiculous mishaps will come as little surprise. 

Trafic is a film concerned with the genius, inspiration, contradictions, joys, limits, power and effects of modern industrialization on human society.  The tone of Trafic is noticeably less lighthearted and breezy than Tati’s earlier works.  There is a palpable frustration in the gridlock and unnecessary distractions that accompany Mr. Hulot on his journey. 

While his character remains blithely undisturbed by the general chaos and constant disruption, one senses that Tati (as the writer and director) has grown agitated by the roads that lead nowhere, the needless checkpoints, and the mechanized barriers that keep people locked away both from one another and their own humanity.  That may seem to be a very heavy commentary to lay on a 97-minute comedy, but the film stands firmly as both an engaging artistic critique and a thoroughly enjoyable piece of entertainment.

Trafic is, admittedly, the quietest and less antic-driven films featuring Tati’s iconic Mr. Hulot.  This is because Tati never intended to wrap up the Hulot series with Trafic.  However, after the dismal commercial response to Playtime—which left Tati essentially bankrupt—the filmmaker was all but forced to dust off Mr. Hulot’s hat and bring his beloved, bumbling alter ego back on screen. 

A more complicated philosophy and masquerading tension quietly accompanies Mr. Hulot and his companions on their travels from Paris to Amsterdam.  While there may not be many side-splitting moments in Trafic, this in no way detracts from delighting and engaging in the comedic joy and sharp wit that are ever present in Mr. Hulot’s unique world. 

The film’s understated charm stems from Tati’s diffusion and gradual accumulation of humor rather than from explicit gags and jokes.  With a bare-bones sketch of a plot, minimal dialogue and only a few (wonderfully and painstakingly executed) choreographed scenes of ballet-like comedy Trafic is one of those rare films where the audience is enlisted to find the funny—as opposed to so many comedies where the humor is bluntly delivered and force fed with a crude rapidity.

Once again the Criterion Collection has performed an invaluable service to movie lovers by updating and re-releasing the film on DVD.  The film’s digital restoration is superb and Trafic shines off your screen with beautiful images that are crisp, colorful and clean.  The two-disc Criterion edition also includes an insightful essay by film critic Jonathan Ramsey, trailers, interviews with the cast and The Comedy of Jacques Tati a French television interview with Jacques Tati from 1973 where he discusses his work.  The second disc includes the feature-length documentary In the Footsteps of Monsieur Hulot that is an invaluable introduction and exploration of the genesis and history of this iconic comedic character.

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