Directed by: Jacques Tati
Starring: Jacques Tati, Maria Kimberly, Marcel Fraval, Honoré Bostel, François Maisongrosse
Not that Jacques Tati’s films were ever exactly mainstream successes in the U.S., his final theatrical feature, Trafic (1971), fared worse than most. I’m not sure why, but a couple of things do come into play. The first is that while Tati is still playing his traditional Monsieur Hulot character — the tan raincoat, the battered soft hat, the pipe in his mouth — here, M. Hulot isn’t quite the engine of innocent destruction we expect. Despite the fact that the film is built on a parade of disasters — all involving the transport of the absurd “camper car” Hulot has invented from Paris to a car show in Amsterdam — the disasters are rarely his fault. They just occur for a variety of reasons. But there was something else working against Trafic: the mood of the moment. It was released in the U.S. around Christmastime in 1972 with a G rating — and then, even more than now, that was pretty much the kiss of death unless the movie came from Disney. The assumption was that G-rated pictures were kiddie fare.
That’s too bad because while Trafic is rarely wildly funny — an elaborate multiple car wreck to one side — it’s breezily amusing throughout. I do question why Tati gave so much of the film over to Maria Kimberley as an American PR representative, but it does allow us to get a good look at the delightfully quirky (and apparently appallingly made) Siata Spring sports car she drives. (It looks like the bastard child of a 1952 MG and a Jeep — and, at the time of the film’s release, was being given a big push in the U.S. — that didn’t quite take, which may account for its presence.) Tati also devotes long stretches of the film to observing the way people behave in their cars — with special attention to the basic driver assumption that you’re somehow in a private space (even though you’re surrounded by glass). Not one of Tati’s best films, but well worth a look.
Classic World Cinema by Courtyard Gallery will present Trafic Friday, May 10 at 8 p.m. at Phil Mechanic Studios, 109 Roberts St., River Arts District, upstairs in the Railroad Library). Info: 273-3332, www.ashevillecourtyard.com
In Brief: Jacques Tati’s final theatrical film — and the swan song for his Monsieur Hulot character — is a strange affair in that Tati the performer takes a definite backseat to Tati the director. The results are a mixed bag, but a likable one. The plot is nothing more than having M. Hulot transport his fantasticated “camping car” from Paris to a car show in Amsterdam— and though Hulot is rarely the cause of the trouble this time, things do not go smoothly. Rarely hysterically funny, the film is instead mostly pleasantly goofy.