Jacques Tati had an astonishing run of success in the '40s and '50s with his puckish comedies Jour De Fête, Mr. Hulot's Holiday, and Mon Oncle, each of which reduced everyday human behavior to a set of clockwork actions, easily gummed up. Then Tati gambled all his goodwill—and most of his personal savings—on the 1967 comedy Playtime, for which he built an elaborate set meant to replicate the sterile, officious city he felt Paris had become. Playtime is Tati's crowning achievement, simultaneously bleak, beautiful, and stunningly choreographed. But it was a little too clean and reactionary for the shaggy '60s, and its financial failure left Tati unable to work on such a grand scale again.
The same critics and cineastes who were initially cool to Playtime were equally indifferent to Trafic, a more modest 1971 comedy featuring Tati's signature character Mr. Hulot as an automotive engineer embarking on a calamitous cross-continent trip to an Amsterdam auto show. Trafic is one of only five proper features (along with a handful of shorts and TV specials) that one of France's greatest filmmakers completed, which alone makes it worth seeing. But contrary to its reputation, Trafic is hardly a footnote to Tati's career. Like Playtime, though less visionary, Trafic is a sly, low-key satire about the state of modern Europe, and where its real soul resides.
Though the gags are a little thinner and sparer than in previous Tati films—and though some of them are as loud and vulgar as any of Disney's Herbie The Love Bug movies—there are moments of whimsy and wonder that are pure Tati. It takes a Tati to construct a montage of idle drivers picking their noses at red lights, or to introduce an American PR flack who changes outfits every time she gets out of her car, or to conceive a station wagon that doubles as a stove, shower, dining room, and bed. Tati's humor is rooted in mime, and can be appreciated as dance as much as comedy, but what made him a great filmmaker was his ability to construct shots like the one in Trafic where a car window's reflection shows vehicles zooming past each other at askew angles. Tati could always see what others might've missed.
Key features: A comprehensive, entertaining two-hour documentary about Tati's life and films, directed and narrated by his daughter Sophie.