In the winter of 1894, Count Albert de Dion, a manufacturer, playboy, and cycling enthusiast, proposed what would become the world's first car race. Twenty-three European automobiles, running on electricity or steam or gasoline, would trace a grueling 745-mile loop from Paris to Bordeaux. Most of the top-ranking vehicles were French—an unsurprising outcome at the time. France ruled the car market. Its auto exports in the decade after 1900 turned more profit than all other countries' combined. Like many good things given unto Gaul, though, this one did not last. The World Wars crushed its auto market just as the United States' shifted into high gear, and by the mid-'50s, it was the American road that symbolized modernity, prosperity, and caprice—things that postwar France was aching to reclaim. When a 1961 movie mocking this lust called itself La Belle Américaine, it was not referring to a woman. The beautiful American was a drop-top Caddy.
Yet as more and more French people bought cars through the '60s, France's love affair with the automobile was losing heat. And by the time Jacques Tati started working on his 1971 comic film, Trafic (newly rereleased on DVD), the honeymoon was over in a big way. The number of cars on the road in France had more than doubled in a decade. Driving had become a chore—or worse, as in the eyes of Tati's strident contemporary Jean-Luc Godard. The early Godard films, like Breathless, Contempt, and Pierrot le Fou, were romantic, wind-in-your-hair car sagas; their reprobate heroes lived and, not infrequently, died in the thrilling, tragic fashion of James Dean. But by the 1967 release of his Week-End—in which a frosty middle class horsepowers out of Paris only to be pinioned in traffic, blinded by road rage, and eventually devoured by cannibals—France's fast-lane dream was turning into a nightmare.
Those nightmare tones are nowhere apparent in Trafic, one of the most daylighted movies in French cinema. Tati was a physical comedian in the mold of Chaplin and Keaton. The character who made him famous, the bumbling flâneur Monsieur Hulot, appears in Trafic as an auto designer. The movie's centerpiece is Hulot's "camping car," a station wagon decked with gadgetry that a French, semiretired James Bond might enjoy—a steak-frites-appropriate pan in the grille, a louche-seeming shower out the back. The vehicle is destined for a show in Amsterdam. Driving there, Hulot, accompanied by a jaded truck driver (Marcel Fraval) and a high-strung American publicist (Maria Kimberly), manages to get sidetracked by a flat tire, an empty gas tank, a car accident, and Dutch customs officers with improbable hair. They never make the show.
It's a cartoonish sendup of the auto industry's chief selling point—the idea that car ownership makes our lives faster, freer, and more cost-effective. And it's generally thought to show that Tati, like Godard, was channeling the ennui of his era, spurning car culture and longing for the days when everyone rode bicycles and boated on the Loire. This is a misinterpretation. In fact, Trafic is a movie about finding life and freedom through cars. Tati's goal was to scrub away banality and revive the American-style thrills that had once drawn France to the road.
He does so with a light touch. Tati came to movies from the music-hall circuit, where he'd had a mime act, and an observational bent informed his films. His field work for Trafic, he once told The New Yorker's Penelope Gilliatt, consisted of sitting by the side of a highway for a couple of hours. What he saw was not a landscape ravaged by vile machines; it was a group of people who'd forgotten that the road meant fun. "People going away for the weekend. Not a smile," he said. Brilliantly choreographed scenes like this one, which flesh out the first half of the movie, held a mirror up to the French driver. (Objects in that mirror may be closer than we'd like.)
Is Tati laughing with these people or at them? He liked to insist it was all in good fun—"I feel people would enjoy themselves much better if they observed a little bit more"—but his caricatures have a nasty edge that's hard to dismiss. What is so enjoyable about being "observed" with your finger up your nose? People are right to consider Trafic an open attack on something to do with cars. That something, though, is not the car itself.
Tati was constantly fending off anti-modern readings of his slapstick. No, he'd explain, he loved modern architecture. He was only "making fun of the people" who shaped their lives around it. He saw his movies as draughts of liberating fancy in an unyielding, self-serious world. He was by no means anti-technological. Every television in Trafic plays footage of the 1969 moon landing like a kind of mantra—the new American adventure, the roar out into another world. Tati's juxtaposing of this footage with images of tired, run-down cars is aspirational, as if this fresh marvel could restoke drivers' desire to seek out the unknown road.
A traffic accident that ensnares Hulot and his fellow travelers midway through their blundered journey is, unexpectedly, the most magical moment in the film—and it's the cars, not the characters, bringing it to life: