For the first hour, Trafic has a lot of gems. The film opens with a car manufacturing plant with a lot of nice, precise composition and editing, and director Tati maintains an interest in the goings-on of cars and their drivers. The action centers around an auto show in Amsterdam (presumably filmed at a real auto show for some of it) and there are a handful of wonderful montage sequences showing off the latest and greatest in technology. But more the old standards—how’s the trunk work, how’s the door work, how’s the hood work—with Tati going a little absurd but never completely there. Usually because they cut away not because the scene couldn’t go totally absurd, it’s just not there long enough.
During that first hour, there are these various gag setups without any follow through; instead Tati finds something else in the action, like how people yawn when driving or, you know, pick their noses. A lot. The nose picking montage would break a lesser film but Trafic can manage it just fine. In fact, when the subsequent montages break out amongst the random drivers driving unobserved… nothing can quite beat the nose picking. Though they never really try as hard again either.
Tati plays a car designer whose company is sending him to the auto show to help exhibit their camping car. It’s a station wagon with a camper built into the back of it and there are all sorts of gadgets. The film takes a long time to get around to introducing the gadgets, but once it does, they’re amusing and all a little silly. But their reveal comes after the first hour, when Trafic is starting to sputter about aimlessly. When it does find the plot again, it’s an entirely unpredictable one, which would be fine if it were good but instead the last thirty plus minutes of the film embraces all its weakest elements.
First and foremost is Maria Kimberly. She’s playing the public relations person in charge of presenting the car. She’s always changing her clothes—in her adorable little car—and it’s immediately a tired gimmick because Kimberly’s obnoxious. It’s not her fault she’s obnoxious, the character’s obnoxious, but she’s profoundly unpleasant to be around. All she does is whine, under-act, change her clothes, have guys ogle her. She’s got this dog with her the whole movie, occasionally getting into antics, and it takes an hour for it to be believable she’s the dog’s person she’s so indifferent to it.
Kimberly, Tati, and Marcel Fraval are in charge of getting the model camping car to the auto show. Except the car company’s truck is a junker and it starts breaking down immediately, leading to multiple mechanic stops. At one point Tati could juxtapose incapable, glamorous Kimberly—who the film establishes in her first scene as an inept jerk—with a female mechanic who has to do all the work while her dad sits and watches the Apollo 11 mission on TV, but the female mechanic doesn’t even get a credit. She also doesn’t get anything to do. While the film holds together for an hour, Tati seems done trying to do any juxtaposing—flashy new auto show cars against cars in junk yards—around thirty minutes in. Trafic is frustrating because you can see it starting to go downhill. It’s very clearly happening and for a while it seems like Tati’s got to have it under control because he’s so unconcerned.
And then it crashes and never recovers. Worse, there’s a crash and a recovery in the narrative, so the whole thing becomes a self-analogy.
In the end, Trafic doesn’t work out. It’s got a solid enough first hour—a little soft near the end but certainly recoverable—then the rest is one miss or another. Except this utterly sublime moment where one of the subplots pays off unexpectedly and brilliantly and magically and then Kimberly ruins it.
But by that point, the only thing more surprising than Kimberly messing it up would be Tati trying to patch Trafic after her latest puncture.