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Quiet Cities: The roaring silences of Tati’s "Trafic," and other paradoxes.

Trafic
Courtesy of the Criterion Collection.
“The most striking feature of the sound track of  [1949’s] Jour de Fete is the constant presence of countryside ambient noises.[…] The most nearly comparable ambience track is the enervatingly loud and constant road noise in  [1971’s] Trafic,” observes David Bellos in his 1999 biography of French performer/auteur Jacques Tati.  Well, yes and no.  A viewing and of course auditing of Tati’s penultimate film (and farewell to his perpetually bemused alter ego Monsieur Hulot) reveals a more spacious approach to sound than Bellos’ description suggests. The noises of the small European cars whizzing down highways, or jammed and revving during inexplicable delays, or careening off the road in the wake of a multi-vehicle collision, alternate with several varieties of hush. The quiet hum of machinery installing the flooring at a massive convention center on the eve of an enormous auto exhibition. The near-inaudible sigh of the morning dew slowly settling near the lakeside garage where the truck carrying one would-be auto show model—the “camper car” designed by M. Hulot, a compact model of multiple Avery-esque innovations (e.g. a front grille that converts into a barbecue grill)—is stopped for repairs. The awkward pauses between multi-lingual chatter—while in Tati’s prior film, the massively inventive Playtime, the toggling between English and French was part of the film’s satirical point, here there is as much Dutch, German and English spoken as French, straightforwardly enough (there are few plays on language, in contrast to Playtime’s inventive usages of Franglais, largely concocted by American-in-Paris humorist Art Buchwald). The gaps in between spurts of chatter give the varied characters time to register their understanding, or lack thereof…whereupon everybody gets back to business, for at least a bit.
Top: Orly airport in Playtime. Above: Modernity not quite as grand: the RAI sign in Trafic.
But even at its noisiest—and at times Tati layers some fairly insipid, loud, post ye-ye radio pop on top of the automobile noise—Trafic feels like a film in repose. The plot, such as it is, sees auto designer Hulot and varied confederates—including an impassive truck driver and a frantic American PR rep—trying to get their camper car from Paris to Amsterdam in time to make the auto show. Still, for all the action—breakdowns, customs hassles, road congestion, accidents—one watches with almost no sense of tension; one feels that nothing is really at stake.
And yet the film is suffused with delight, and with little pinprick moments. It’s silly and irritating the way the PR woman (then-fashion model Maria Kimberley, whose flat Midwestern accent leads you to believe she may start hawking the New York Herald Tribune at any minute) dotes over her small shaggy dog, but when a group of quasi-hippies plays a nasty gag concocted to make her believe the pooch has met with harm, one’s heart sinks. The truck driver and the lakeside garage mechanic shrug off their labors to watch live TV coverage of a moon walk; once they decide to get back to work, they do so imitating the heavy-gravity slo-mo of the astronauts, for no other reason but to amuse themselves, and it’s one of the most sweetly funny bits of the picture, or in all of Tati, for that matter.
Trafic flummoxes some people; no less a comedy authority as Richard Lester has pronounced it “unbearable.” But although its eye is very similar to that of Playtime (widescreen notwithstanding, the view from the bus in Playtime and the view of that auto show hall are almost twins), its perspective is different; Playtime’s wry and rueful view of modernity and “progress” is here replaced by a mode of acceptance. Even the montage of stuck drivers unthinkingly picking their noses has little sting. Trafic’s lack of effective dramatic momentum is, it turns out, its whole reason for being: the movie insists that life really happens in the interstices of “events;” that getting there is not only more than half the fun, but all of the meaning.  One expects a satire, but what one gets instead is a Zen lesson, topped off by the sight of Hulot actually opening that umbrella he kept furled throughout his five-feature run, as the rain that never happened in the previous films begins to pour down.
*** Trafic will be available on Region 1 DVD through Criterion Collection on July 15.

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