I wrote the following short essay on Jacques Tati’s Trafic (1971) for my Film History Class at Watkins.
Jacques Tati’s Trafic could be called a Comedy of Detour, its a comedy without a plot, without a coherent story. The film is made of a serious satirical incident that comments on the industrial and the new modern establishment of France, the center theme is that of the car.
Trafic evolves around cars and the different passengers driving them. The film begins at a small car factory in France in which a crowd of engineers are building a new model car that is both a driving machine and a picnic cart with everything in it, from a bath to a TV set, the head of the group is Mr. Hulot (Jacques Tati). The plan is to take the car into an International Car Show in Amsterdam, Holland. The journey begins with Mr. Hulot accompanied by an American public relationship secretary Maria (Maria Kimberly) and a truck driver carry the car in his old truck. The film is a combination of gags evolving around the misfortunes of the adventure which consists of the truck breaking down in different places. A typical theme of Tati; rejecting modern technological establishment in order for individuals to interact with each other, to establish communication and discover nature and their surrounding. The best gag in the film is a traffic incident in which numbers of cars collide to create a massive incident, the breakdown of the cars makes the passengers wonders about their surrounding, leaving their cars and stretching their arm with a soundtrack of birds accompany them.
Tati uses mostly non-actors in the film that fit his description of a scene and his caricature view of the performers. Like Fellini, each performer is hand picked for their look, body movement and gestures. A Tati actor lack emotion, its their movement and gestures that are important, calculated to a precision. The essence of each character is not based on psychology or cause and effect, but rather on calculation of a scene as a whole relating to the performer.
In order to maintain the best comic effect, Tati avoids the use of close-up. In the span of the entire film, there are no close-up of a human face. Most of the gags are set-up in extreme long-shot in which one take for one-scene is applied to it. By avoiding close-up, as a viewer we are attracted to the mise-en-scene as a whole, in which by combination and elimination we slowly are drown into the gag. Tati is the master of mis-en-scene, the framing, composition, and character movement are calculated precisely to give it a natural illusion of realism. The viewers eye moves from endless point of action in which multiple gags evolves. The eye and the brain need more than one viewing of a Tati film to grasp the complete action. The color is used to the same effect, the effect of comparison city life are dull and colorless compare to the countryside in which is full of rich color, mainly red and green with sharp tones.
The music in Trafic like all Tati’s film is an independent character on its own or is of a certain theme that is attached to a certain character. Unlike Mon Oncle (1958) and Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot (1953) in which there is a musical score independent from the action, in Trafic, Tati makes minimalism use of music, each piece of music seems to come from a natural source (mainly in a car radio), the music both comments on a character or on the scene. They are usually short musical tones that are simple and repetitious, one could whistle all day after watching a Tati film. Tati avoids using music as a tool of emotional impact on the audience, like his images, music are used to go alongside a gag or imposes a feeling on the scene and not the opositie.
The coming of sound in late 1920s is marked as the end of the great comic gag traditions. For the coming of sound took film closer to theater tradition than that of vaudeville and music-hall shows in which all the legendary comedian learned their trade. What Keaton failed to do with sound, Tati achieved it (after seeing Mon Oncle, Keaton asked Tati to work on sound versions of his films, a project that never came true) . Dialogue is used in complete oppositions to that of talkie comedy, there are no line that are funny on their own, there are no witty or sharp dialogues, most of the time people are talking normal conversation, what make it funny is the situation they are in. Every gag in Trafic is visual, completey independent from dialogue. Sound and music are used in place of dialogues go along with the visual. The city is characterized by noise pollution of traffic, crowds and industrial sound. The countryside is clean with sound of animal farms, normal human conversation and sound of nature. Like a Robert Bresson film, every object, every movement and steps are calculated in term of sound, it’s a world that is full of sound wizardry.
After Buster Keaton and Charles Chaplin, Jacques Tati is arguably the third greatest comic genius of the 20th century. He is a continuous tradition of visual gag comedian that goes back to the early days of Mack Sennett. The world of Trafic, is that of Tati. A world that is of fantasy and imagination, far from realism. Tati takes realism into a whole new dimensions, that of imitation and exaggeration executed with minimalism, it’s a fragment of the real, a world rich of imagery and sound, the world of Tati.