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Left: The cover of the Criterion Collection DVD of Trafic. Right: Jacques Tati, Trafic, 1971, still from a color film in 35 mm, 96 minutes. From left: Mr. Hulot (Jacques Tati) and Maria (Maria Kimberly).

THE MOST CELEBRATED MOMENT in Jacques Tati’s 1971 film Trafic is a wonderfully choreographed multivehicle highway accident. It’s a madcap ballet of scraping bumpers, caroming wheels, and gasping engines that ends with a bunch of dazed motorists emerging in sync from their cars and walking it off. The sequence may be more interesting, though, for what it isn’t: the even more famous pileup from Jean-Luc Godard’s 1967 film Week End. With that apocalyptic wreck, revealed over the course of a nearly ten-minute tracking shot, Godard seemed to be saying that civilization had hit a terminal point—and that the bloody carcasses spilling out of car doors deserved it. Tati, you could say, had less road rage.

A former music-hall mime, Tati kept the tradition of the great silent comedies alive in the sound era until Woody Allen picked up the baton. The actor-director’s heroes were Chaplin, Keaton, Harold Lloyd, and Mack Sennett; the best known of the six feature films he directed is Mr. Hulot’s Holiday (1953), a featherlight satire of life at a French seaside resort. Then, with Mon Oncle, which won the Best Foreign Film Oscar in 1959, Tati addressed the absurdities of mechanized modern life head-on; Playtime (1967) and Trafic did, too, albeit with less commercial success.

The last film to feature his beloved alter ego, Mr. Hulot, Trafic is also the only one in which Tati’s bumbling and impeccably mannered naf has a real job. He designs cars, and the film’s fume of a plot has him escorting his newest one, a tricked-out model designed for camping trips, from Paris to an Amsterdam auto show along with a diffident factory-hand driver (Marcel Franval) and an airheaded publicist (Maria Kimberly). Every conceivable thing goes wrong en route, and Hulot is fired on arrival. In other words, there’s a happy ending.

For a good part of the film, however, Hulot fans may wonder whether Tati’s delightfully oblivious comic creation has strayed a bit too far into the mainstream. Though Hulot goes through Trafic in his signature trench coat and high-water pants, in many scenes the impractical pipe is gone. He interacts with his fellow humans more effectively and takes charge of situations with less fidgeting. In the earlier films, he made messes; in Trafic, he cleans them up.

As in Playtime, Hulot’s role here is somewhat marginal. Was the older Tati growing tired of his mannerisms or was he pushing a wider critique of modern society? Whatever the case, Trafic advances what Tati once called the “evolutionary” goal of his comedies: not necessarily to make audiences roll in the aisles, but to “turn regular life into a gag.” Tati got the idea for the film when, standing on a highway overpass on a beautiful Sunday morning, he noticed that no one who drove by was smiling. Trafic is full of other keen observations: There’s a priceless montage of people absentmindedly picking their noses at the wheel, and a superbly funny bird’s-eye shot of car salesmen peremptorily popping open trunks, hoods, and doors all at once. The pacing is admittedly awkward, and the characters hard to grasp, but rarely have elaborate gags blended so seamlessly with slice-of-life revelations. Tati shot documentary footage for his traffic and auto-show scenes; like Buuel, he delivers most of his punch lines straight-faced, and many of his jokes are buried deep within his long shots. Needless to say, Trafic rewards repeat viewings.

The two-disc Criterion set includes an enlightening 104-minute documentary by Tati’s daughter, Sophie Tatischeff, that draws heavily on the filmmaker’s articulate explanations. The first disc’s supplementary materials include the gimmicky original trailer and two worthwhile but incompetently conducted interviews that originally aired on French TV in the ’70s. In one of them, an interview with the Trafic cast, Franval says: “When you know Tati, you notice all the incredible stuff happening in the street.” Only Tati himself, though, could have turned all that honking, lurching, roaring, yawning, and skidding into such a clever assemblage of scrap metal.

Darrell Hartman

Trafic is now available on DVD from the Criterion Collection.