In Trafic (1971), Monsieur Hulot is a car designer whose misadventures surround his attempt to get the Altra company's camping vehicle from Paris to Amsterdam for an international car expo. The gadget-filled station wagon camper is tricked out with a built-in tent, a barbecue grill that literally uses the grill of the car, a shower stall that can deliver hot water if you start the engine and even an improbable electric shaver that can be operated from the driver's seat.
Monsieur Hulot is accompanied by a truck driver (Marcel Fraval) and a fashionable American PR agent (Maria Kimberly). Monsieur Hulot's vehicle represents an aspirational dream of how we might spend a blissful life of peace in nature away from other cars and people. Monsieur Hulot's reality, however, is one of gridlock, unexpected pit stops, roadblocks, traffic accidents, tangles with police and a life spent in a car, next to cars, chasing cars and crashing into cars. It's an existence that cannot escape the asphalt road. The destination is a giant warehouse where the camping vehicle is to be parked amidst a sea of other cars and displayed in front of a fake nature backdrop that includes a forest of cardboard cutouts.
Trafic was preceded by Tati's masterpiece Playtime (1967), where the kindly Monsieur Hulot interacted with high-tech architecture and a throbbing hum of choreographed humanity on such a grand scale that it required a huge budget and three years to film. Despite now being routinely heralded as one of the best films ever made, Playtime was a box-office failure. As a result, Trafic was done on a much smaller scale and many critics derided Monsieur Hulot's last adventure as a disappointment when compared to Playtime. And yet, Trafic has all the signature motifs that make Tati such a unique, unconventional and visionary filmmaker. The film contains meticulous spatial arrangements, dancing soundscapes, a story told visually rather than verbally and all this expressed with a keen sense of observation that knows how to mix poetry with prose. In Georges Sadoul's Dictionary of Film Makers, Tati says:
"I can't manufacture films like bread rolls. I'm not a baker. I consider how people live, I walk about. I listen to conversations, I observe mannerisms, details, the ways of behaving that reveal the personality of each individual... Without seeking a message, I would like to express what is leading to the suppression of personality in an increasingly mechanized world." (Dictionary of Film Makers by Georges Sadoul.)
Tati won an Honorary César in 1977 and died on November 4th, 1982. His work is imbued with some of the same magic that informed his early career as a pantomimist as well as work in music halls and circuses. He took cues from great movies of the silent age and Hulot's name itself has a phonetic similarity to how Charlie Chaplin's first name sounds in French; Charlot. If Chaplin left some big shoes to fill, Tati was up to the task.
It is tempting to imagine how, almost half a century later, Tati might have employed Monsieur Hulot to poke fun at our era's ubiquitous proliferation of camper vans, cell-phone addiction and social media. Unfortunately, Trafic was Tati's sixth and final theatrical feature. Put another way: Tati was a big man, measuring 6'3". Hulot's character was even bigger. Those are some big shoes to fill and cinephiles are still waiting.
By Pablo Kjolseth