France?s only challenge to the genius of American silent film comedy rests with the inimitable Jacques Tati (1907-82), whose handful of movies mostly feature his alter ego, Monsieur Hulot, who bumbles through modern life with an insouciance worthy of Chaplin or Keaton. Criterion here reissues the fourth and final Hulot movie, first released in 1971 but as fresh and funny as any dumb-doper movie at the local cineplex. If not quite as stunning as Mon Oncle (1958) or Play Time (1967), Trafic returns to Tati?s favorite — and inexhaustible — theme: the absurdities of everyday existence. In this case, Hulot, with his familiarly elastic body and off-kilter walk, must deliver a car he?s designed to an auto exposition in Amsterdam. The problems are predictable — flat tire, engine trouble, traffic jams — but Tati spins a new turn on every old setup. He choreographs a major accident with visual jokes that invoke both Rube Goldberg and Monty Python. And his montages are pure pleasure: a symphony of opening and closing car doors and hoods; a gaggle of bored motorists picking their noses and yawning; a squeaking chorus of windshield wipers. All of which he punctuates with quick flashes of junked car heaps — the final resting grounds for the car culture he both celebrates and mocks. That?s Tati?s ambivalence in a nutshell. Awed by modern design, as here embodied in Hulot?s fully loaded station wagon camper, Tati, like Chaplin and Keaton before him, sees the indignities and dehumanization so often inherent in innovation. But Hulot remains undefeated and lumbers on, always falling forward, and always — as Tati describes him in a supplemental interview — “human, simple, shy.” A documentary by Tati?s daughter Sophie places him exactly where he belongs — in the pantheon of world comic cinema.
About the Author
Thomas DePietro, a former contributing editor of Kirkus Reviews, has also published in Commonweal, The Nation, and The New York Times Book Review. He recently edited Conversations with Don DeLillo, and his book on Kingsley Amis is forthcoming.