For Jacques Tati, the car is the perfect emblem of the dehumanising effects of modern industrial life. Supposedly a symbol of freedom - of movement, of consumer choice - it actually signifies confinement and uniformity. Our dependence on it dehumanises us; therefore, its capacity for unreliability, for breakdown, seems catastrophic, life-threatening. The proliferaton of cars in our society simply leads to a perpetual traffic jam, an inability to move - a terrifying, apocalyptic early shot reveals an endless parking lot, a virtual city of immobile machines; it also cuts us off from other people.
The problem with attempts to regiment life, to make it uniform and efficient, is that the raw material is intractable human nature, liable to put a spanner in the works through ineptitude, vanity, laziness, incomprehension, desire, officiousness, accident. Tati's simple story follows the Altra car company's attempt to transport a showpiece camping van (full of hilarious parody-Bond gadgetry, including built-in shower and barbecue) to an International Exhibition in Amsterdam. Prodded by an exasperated American public relations officer, M. Hulot and indolent driver Marcel are confounded all the way, by flat tyres, lack of gas, problems with customs, car crashes. As in Tati's very first feature, 'Jour de Fete', a progress leaving humanity behind is signalled by American aerodynamics, in this case the Apollo 11 moon-landings glimpsed on TV.
Tati conveys the industrial homogeneity that scares and angers him in many ways: by emphasising vast, cavernous industrial buildings, numbing in their inhumanity, dwarfing the people occupying them, especially in Tati's rigorous, no close-up shooting; by an austere, monotonous grey colour scheme (buildings, cars, roads, clothes etc.) - even the odd splashes of colour, red, yellow or navy, belong to organisations' uniforms and logos; by the choreography of human activity, whether it is the montage of basic instincts, such as nose-picking or yawning, or ballets of mindless movement, such as the shapes thrown by survivors of an auto-accident; or more didactic montages emphasising the sameness of machines, their reflections multiplying other machines, obliterating the humans operating them. Tati posits against this uniformity: comedy, failure, dream-like sequences - a recurringly eerie effect is the proximity to noisy, country-destroying motorways of quiet rural lanes and towns, where the industrial exists in a more delapidated and decaying, but more eccentric and human form.
'Trafic' won't go down in history as the funniest film Tati made, especially compared with its predecessor, 'Playtime', one of cinema's true masterpieces, whose comic crescendo of collapse it seeks but never attains. The more obvious gags often fall flat or resort to coarseness; the satire is frequently heavy-handed. Even the music, so integral to Tati's art, sometimes sounds like it escaped from a Robin Askwith sex comedy.
Nevertheless, 'Trafic' is pure delight from start to finish, largely because of Tati's long-shot, set-piece style, which allows for an unhurried accumulation of comic detail, a revelation of character through action rather than psychology, and some of the most extraordinary visual visual designs in film - in other words, it offers the viewer a freedom to breathe not vouchsafed the characters. There is a particularly, nastily funny sequence involving a hippy practical joke and Hulot being cruel to a fur jacket.