Les contretemps de M. Hulot

|Jesse Lawson|

Compared to Jacques Tati’s previous films, Trafic (1971)—beautifully shot and staged as always and sharply edited to give its gags punctuating force like a stomp on the brakes—can appear somewhat aimless as a narrative, slightly jaundiced in outlook. Such criticisms inevitably invoke Playtime (1967), where a potentially glib vision of modernist-urban-architecture-as-alienation turns inside out so joyously. As in that film, much of Trafic’s comedy is entropic: ridiculous new-fangled things malfunction in funny ways that, if the things were people, might appear sadistic. (Hear that poor car, bouncing as it’s towed, crying “ouch!”) Yet Playtime, with its mini-skyscrapers, is effervescing, where Trafic, and its automobiles, are more grounded, tires deflated. The film suggests that the fantasy of perfect automobility is just that—a fantasy we’re stuck with, like the sea of closely-parked, unmovable cars in the film’s closing shot. 

To the extent that the film is aimless, then, its narrative expresses that condition. Trafic is quite self-consciously a shaggy-dog story, even featuring a shaggy dog, Piton, whose pseudo-demise in one extended, rather problematic gag appears to comment on the film’s picaresque nature. (More on this later.) There is a plot: designer Monsieur Hulot (Tati) and driver Marcel (Marcel Fraval) are trying to transport their feature-rich Camping Car from Parisian factory Altra to an international car show in Amsterdam; however, numerous mechanical and legal delays impede their progress. These result partly from the impetuous efforts of American public relations manager Maria Kimberly (eponymous), who eventually becomes a love interest of sorts for Hulot. As it plays, Trafic may appear not to know where it’s going, but ultimately it seems to be content with not getting there.

Bog-standard classical film narrative has characters with psychological motivations that result in plot developments (you want something, you do something). Tati’s cinema, which rarely looks closer than a medium-long shot and where dialogue is musical and sparse, de-emphasizes psychology. Cars in typical Hollywood movies are vehicles the protagonists’ drive (as it were); thrilling chase sequences follow naturally. Trafic tends to favor intersections, parking lots, and accidents bereft of explosions. 

Such pauses bring to mind Raymond Williams on the subjective experience of driving:

Looked at from right outside, the traffic flows and their regulation are clearly a social order of a determined kind, yet what is experienced inside them—in the conditioned atmosphere and internal music of this windowed shell—is movement, choice of direction, the pursuit of self-determined private purposes. All the other shells are moving, in comparable ways but for their own different private ends. They are not so much other people, in any full sense, but other units which signal and are signaled to, so that private mobilities can proceed safely and relatively unhindered.1 

Given that much of the road action in Trafic happens while people are waiting to move, one might say that the deepest interiority drivers demonstrate is in a montage of peculiarly intent nose-picking—a private purpose of a kind perhaps more universal than ordinarily thought, but whose humanistic import is open to question. More typical for Tati might be the way faces and bodies echo the idiosyncratic movements of windshield wipers in the Amsterdam rain. These faces are perhaps more like “units signaling” than “people,” but the signals are not social.

Complicating our notion of Tati’s non-psychological (mock-behaviorist?) cinema is Maria Kimberley, who lacks interiority but is quite outspoken and in some sense extremely self-determining. As a manager, she shows little awareness of her effect on other people, but as a model (which the historical Kimberley was) she is extremely effective, managing an astonishing frequency of eye-catching costume changes—sometimes performed before our very eyes in her sports-convertible-as-wardrobe. In this vehicle, unlike her perpetually stalled Altra coworkers, she moves as one unit, zooming across the screen, hindering others’ mobilities. Indeed, her “private purposes” are “public relations,” her vehicle not a closed shell but open to the air. Visual comparisons of model and car are reinforced by smirkingly obvious onlooker commentary. This is both emblematic of the film’s critique of consumerism—it creates an inauthentic public life—and of a certain misogyny with which such critiques are often brewed.

Williams’ comments above describe what he called “mobile privatization” in a 1974 study of television. In a nutshell: as people come to live at greater distance from their workplaces, the family home becomes more nominally self-sufficient, with electric lighting and well-equipped kitchens; however, these conveniences also require travel for their sustenance (trips to the grocer and department store). There are social needs, too: where the city dweller could walk short distances or go by rail to enjoy a variety of entertainments, the suburban family benefits from radio and (later) television, making the home feel more autonomous while providing a sense of connection to a larger social world.2 

In Trafic, television plays a role comparable to the mobile cinema in Jour de fête (1949), where a newsreel’s triumphalist depiction of US airmail delivery inspires cyclist-postman François to attempt the fastest bicycle delivery possible, even (briefly) bypassing motorists. In Trafic, television depicts American flight competition of an even more spectacular order: the 1969 Apollo 11 moon landing. In response to this formidable event, mechanic Barrinson and driver Marcel mimic the astronauts by working with exaggerated slowness, as if in low gravity. For a change, modernity’s achievement has been to slow motion rather than accelerate it. When Jonathan Rosenbaum asked about this scene, Tati replied, “For them, the moon flight isn’t a great achievement; in relation to their private lives, it’s a flop.”3 If we take Tati’s word for this, the film says that the best use of television’s gaze is as a confirmation of the superiority of the private domain—probably best experienced in a bucolic setting like that Barrinson’s garage inhabits, by a canal with cattle roaming on the other side. (Similarly, Jour de fête takes place in a small French village, a site seemingly prior to mobile privatization.) This is, after all, where the camping-car that motivates the film’s action actually finds some use, its table-gate providing space for a convivial breakfast.

This country scene is also the setting for the aforementioned pseudo-demise of Piton, kidnapped by local youths and replaced with a shaggy coat under the wheel of Maria’s automobile. For Gary Giddens, this incident, which inspires much weeping in an uncomprehending Maria, has the effect of “humanizing” her.4 Undoubtedly, her character softens after this point: she embraces Hulot when he recovers the unscathed dog, and by the end of the film accepts the ultimate failure of Altra’s mission with levity. Even her sports car lurches more hesitantly, as if affectionately. 

Given the lack of psychological interiority in Tati’s films, it’s interesting to consider why the stupidity Maria demonstrates as Hulot tries to reveal the joke, with obvious frustration, is so discomfiting. That is: why is its sexism not merely an iteration of the vaudevillian and circus conventions that clearly inspired Tati? I’d venture that it’s because her transformation conforms to the norms of classical film narrative, in which characters’ psychology enables change. Of course, in some ways Maria “just happens” the way much of the action of a cinematically determined kind does in Tati’s films, but since she has more attitude than anyone else (and more dialogue) she also seems more “psychological,” or aspiring to the same, complaining frequently that a given task she feels compelled to undertake is “not my job.” At the same time, her speech, the very idea of public relations, comes across like those other redundant, obfuscating gadgets of modernity in Tati’s films. If the Piton gag catalyzes her assimilation to Tati’s worldview, it happens without her having any insight into how the trick actually works—which Hulot clearly does know. His character has the mastery of vaudevillian knowledge, prior to privatization, but Maria’s only mastery is as a fashion signifier, a pure visual pleasure whose value the film cannot grant without leering.

On a metaphorical level, pretending to kill the film’s shaggy-dog story and then rescuing it with an implied romance between Hulot and Maria suggests an attitudinal change for Tati since Playtime, whose financial failure was legendarily costly for him. Writ large, Tati’s films appear aware of Williams’ view “from right outside” that our convictions about our self-directed behavior in modern life are in many ways profoundly misguided. But where Playtime imagines that a meaningful spontaneity can occur in public life, Trafic seems to advocate for a retreat to whatever more private spaces are still available to us.

Perceptions of regression often compete with intimations of maturity, and so it goes with Trafic. In Playtime, the parting gift of a scarf marks Hulot’s separation from a would-be love interest (the always mild, often delighted Barbara), which plays no small part in that film’s transcendent pathos. While I get an undeniable rush from this, the feeling reminds me a bit uncomfortably of Ian MacDonald reminiscing about “Penny Lane”: “Anyone unlucky enough not to have been aged between 14 and 30 during 1966-7 will never know the excitement of those years in popular culture. A sunny optimism permeated everything and possibilities seemed limitless.”5 Left with this sentiment, what are those of us not included in this generational cohort to do but weep, as if for our own lost Pitons? It would be a mistake to regard Playtime as a source of limitless sunny optimism; rather, something of the tragic loss implied by MacDonald’s words inheres in the unrepeatable experience of that film’s collapsing-restaurant-party spectacular. Trafic’s lack of such giddy heights does make room for imagining other kinds of spaces where we might find, if not a momentary ebullience, perhaps some milder forms of happiness—perhaps not least because they insist less on self-direction.

Catch Trafic at the Trylon from Friday, May 21 to Tuesday, June 1. Buy tickets and learn more at trylon.org.


  1. Raymond Williams, The Year 2000 (New York: Pantheon, 1983), 188-189.
  2. Raymond Williams, Television: Technology and Cultural Form (New York: Routledge, 2003[1974]), see especially 20-21. Since Williams was writing in the seventies and eighties, the Internet and smartphones have intensified the same tendency, perhaps to the point where the mobility eclipses the privatization (as the Welsh pop band Super Furry Animals declared two decades ago with “Wherever I Lay My Phone, That’s My Home”).
  3. In Film Comment (July 1973), 40.
  4. Gary Giddens, “‘Trafic’: When Tati Drove Himself to the Edge,” New York Sun, 8 July 2008. Available here.
  5. Ian MacDonald Revolution in the Head: The Beatles’ Records and the Sixties (Chicago Review Press, 2005), 221.

Edited by Michelle Baroody

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