Great filmmakers require the skill of a painter, an editor and a stage director. On the stage, the director must arrange the players and block the scene so that the eyes in the audience are drawn to the right places at the right time. On film, the director still needs to compose a shot so that information can be absorbed, but he has the benefit of forcing the eye to certain areas by using zooms and pans. That’s basic visual storytelling, and the greats were able to turn the basic into art, and there was perhaps no greater visual storyteller in the history of the movies than Jacques Tati.
Never heard of Tati? I both pity and envy you. On the one hand, you’ve lived the entire first part of your life completely unaware of the blissful comic elegance of this most remarkable director, but on the other, those pleasures are before you. His movies are breathtaking junctures of storytelling and design, rebuking the modern aesthetic while being a testament to it. Every one looks immaculate, from the cold, modish office building in Play Time to the pretentious house in Mon Oncle, but all are sustained by the same heart, the goofy, awkward Mr. Hulot, played by Tati himself, who both stars in and stands outside of nearly all his movies.
In 1971’s Trafic, Tati’s last film and thus the last appearance of his ubiquitous character, Hulot works as a designer for a car company who travels to an international auto show. Like Tati’s best work, the scenarios are simply the backdrop for Hulot, through his good-natured bumbling, to lampoon the haughtiness of modern life. And, as always with Tati, the movie is less about plot and more about bits. Trafic doesn’t include Tati’s best, but it does have some good ones, including Hulot attempting to climb up an ivy wall that can’t quite support him and a prank involving a shaggy dog and a mop. There also is a good visual gag involving a man who has been in a fender-bender, and when he takes off his shirt to fight his assailant, we discover his Frank Zappa mustache has turned into a Salvador Dali. The movie does have a lot of fun at the car show, the convoluted gadgets that come with the new cars and the booths set up by the manufacturers to grab attention. One booth, to accentuate the outdoorsy nature of its tiny roadster, brings in fake birch trees and pumps in bird sounds.
Tati always had trouble financing his films, which grew to be expensive because of their big group scenes that were exquisitely choreographed and not least of which by their perfectionist director who required numerous takes and reshoots. Trafic was financed by a Dutch company and shot on the cheap. It’s not lacking in creativity but there are some moments when I feel Tati could have explored more had he been given the budget. I’m thinking of an underdone sequence when Hulot finds himself upside-down in a display car that has been attached to a moving mechanical floor. The usual inventiveness is still there, just done more affordably, as when the windshield wipers of a number of cars reflect the personalities of their owners.
Tati, because of the wordless existence of Hulot, is often hailed as a silent filmmaker. True, Hulot, with his signature look of high-water pants, brown trenchcoat and pipe, does remind us of Chaplin’s tramp or Keaton’s stone-faced man, but to say that Tati belonged to another time is inaccurate. No doubt that dialogue is mostly pointless in a Tati film as a communicative device, but the sound of language (there are always several in his films, people will start a sentence in English and finish them in French or something else) but the noise of chatter is constant and a vital part to the aural tableau of his movies. Listen in Trafic for the use of generic rock music or jangled whistled tunes on the soundtrack; observe how he gets a laugh from the sound of a spinning hubcap coming to a halt or the annoying screech of a wiper on glass. The design of a Tati movie does not end with the eyes but extends to the ears as well.
Hulot can’t help but be compared to the little tramp: both have signature looks, they spend most of their time being at the center of chaos but mainly unnoticed, both are essentially sexless, and they both have an inherent sweetness. The best moment in Trafic comes right at the end when Hulot and a woman are parting ways. There’s absolutely no chance of a romantic relationship between them, but the woman is disappointed to see him go. Through an overhead shot we are able to watch Hulot descend a flight of stairs into a subway tunnel and disappear under two dozen umbrellas, newly opened by men emerging from the tunnel into the freak rainfall. The woman lingers at the top of the stairs until Hulot reappears with an umbrella for her. It’s a wonderful sequence and underlines Tati’s grasp of visual logic. The scene makes sense in the context of the dreamlike Trafic, even if it begs the question, if the rain was unexpected, why did so many people have umbrellas?