From Mr. Hulot's Holiday in 1953 to Trafic in 1971, Jacques Tati made four films that - when connected like dots - form a rectangle of cinema about the extravagance and efficiencies of post-World War II consumerism and leisure. Unlike today's soapbox documentaries and feel-bad Hollywood message films, Tati's social comedies don't alienate because there is a genuine compassion in his observations alongside the satire (remember when satire was fun instead of bruising???) and critical sneer.
Indeed, Tati doesn't leave himself out-of-range either, casting his own long, lanky body as the main character Monsieur Hulot. Through non-verbal physical comedy and from behind the wide lens of a colorful camera, Tati lampoons the modern-life as much as he admires it.
What was brilliant about the creation of Mr. Hulot is that it allowed Tati to audaciously access a variety of social spheres, classes, and locations within the time frame of one film, covering up any jumpy or out-of-place scenarios. There is never really plot to a Tati film, just wandering curiosity. And Mr. Hulot serves as that perfect pinball plot device weaving in-and-out of social settings, sometimes unacknowledged by the accompanying characters on screen, simply acting as thread to connect the humor, ideas, and observations that came before it.
Trafic sets itself within the world of the modern automobile industry. Like in Playtime, Tati has his eye on an evolving - sometimes to the point of absurdity - architecture, but the focus here is primarily on movement.
From drawing board, to factory line, to car show platform, there is a big machine pumping at so many parts per minute that the humanity between the cracks often goes unnoticed. For instance, it's humorous to to Tati that humans can be physically separated by no less 5 feet, yet, because of the confines of their own cars, feel secure enough to shove their fingers up their noses. Or, that thousands of people converge on a convention center opening and closing hoods & trunks simultaneously as if it were some horribly disjointed symphony of clanks and clunks.
But it's the smaller moments that resonate (especially upon second viewing): A foreman stares at the swinging arms of a long-haired, twentysomething worker as if he's just had an epiphany about the work ethic of France's future; the rhythm of windshield wipers on various cars mimicing the personality of the occupant(s) inside of them; and, most bizarrely, the gas station where cars drive-in and fill-up by receiving a bust of a historical figure from the attendant.
While not as visually sophisticated as Playtime, or as lovably screwy as M. Hulot's Holiday, Trafic feels like a measured hour and a half wrap-up to the films that came before it.
At Trafic's end, Mr. Hulot finally gets to work the umbrella he's been toting around all these years. After a day of failure and disappointment, a rain descends on Amsterdam, complimenting the mood. Yet, Mr. Hulot, under cover and with woman under arm, walks upright and smiley through the downpour. It's as if this bumbling, nervous, mess of a man has finally figured out life, or, maybe he's just decided to stop worrying and love the modern world.