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