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At-A-Glance Film Reviews

Traffic (1971)

(aka: Trafic)



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One of the actors in Traffic said, of the director Jacques Tati, that he sees things other people don't have time to see. That's the most elegant, compact summary of Tati's films as any I have ever heard. Tati's delightful comedies are all about showing familiar, everyday things in an amusing light. For Traffic, the fourth feature film he made with his Monsieur Hulot character, he takes on the world of automobiles, from manufacturing them to selling them to driving them.

Compared with his earlier films, particularly the sharp and creative Playtime, this one is a mess. But it's a shining example of the auteur theory corollary, which is that a bad film by a great director is always going to be better than a mediocre director's best work. There are flashes of brilliance, including several at the car show. I also loved a moment when M. Hulot walks along the highway with an empty gas can only to run into another man with an empty gas can coming from the other direction. There is an awkward pause as the two men wordlessly puzzle out what to do next.

At the risk of turning this review into a laundry list, I'll describe one other wonderful moment. A policeman arrests a man and has him put his hands behind his head. Meanwhile, another policeman that M. Hulot is following around is tired and stretches his arms over his head. The juxtaposition makes it look like Hulot is arresting the policeman. This is Tati's humor at its finest and illustrates what is meant by how Tati sees things the rest of us don't have time to see. Everyday life is amusing, if only it is not taken for granted but truly observed. Many shots in the film are present for no other reason than to watch people behave: in factories, in the driver's seat, at conventions, and so on. The narrative is simply an excuse for the camera to visit a few different environments.

Unfortunately, the humor in Traffic is dulled by scenes of artificiality. Tati's humor only works when the camera captures something truthful about human behavior. But consider the accident sequence, in which many different cars collide with each other, and one car brakes so fast the rear end flies into the air, and it drives around on its front wheels for a while. That's not an honest showcase of life on the road but rather some kind of discordant slapstick. Then everybody gets out of their cars are stretches for a while, which feels like a Tati-esque observation about human behavior except that it's not human behavior.

Tati completists should watch Traffic at least once. Uneven as it is, there is much to love here. But don't watch this until you've seen and appreciated his earlier work. Otherwise it's liable to lose you.

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