A Frenchman’s Vision of the Motorised World

Image: BFI

Monsieur Hulot is the creation of Jacques Tati, who in this 1971 film plays a car designer for Altra, a small Parisian manufacturer. Hulot is a tall, greying haired, bumbling yet loveable fool of advancing years. Dressed in a lightweight faded beige overcoat, grey slacks that are too short, revealing yellow socks with black hoops, Hulot’s character is defined by the ever-present furled umbrella on his arm, a never-lit pipe and battered trilby. His walk and general mannerisms are exaggerated, adding further comedic demeanour to the film’s storyline. Hulot rarely speaks and when he does his speech is almost imperceptible.

The film begins within the Renault factory; shots of panels being pressed (one wrinkled door pressing halting the process), tyres on overhead gantries, almost complete Renault 16s followed by a cinemascope of hundreds of completed cars. The film then cuts to the bustling, chaotic Altra atelier. The hapless workforce in paint splattered or filthy overalls aimlessly fuss about, not at all desperate it seems to get the Altra Camper Van (an altered R4) prepared for the impending RAI Amsterdam motor show.

As it is obvious the car won’t be ready anytime soon, the unnamed French Altra manger and English PR girl (Maria Kimberley) attempt to speed the process along. Hulot is more concerned about the vehicle’s design, his efforts enhanced with a thick marker pen. Disturbed by an opening office door, his pen writhes across the page. The manager, asking for updated plans, receives from Hulot one possible version, just as the 18:00 hours claxon sounds – the workforce is leaving!

Redoubling the pressure, the van is loaded onto an ancient truck (no reason given as what prevents its own pediment), then heads out into the Paris traffic, allowing the nonsense to increase, greatly. A salesman sets off independently in a Simca 1500 estate, carrying the stand’s display of a woodland scene.

Tati uses the film to portray the idiosyncrasies of the motorised world through the conduit of his hapless character. The noise, synergy and rhythm of passing traffic. Habits and stupidity behind the wheel, such as nose picking, along with driving standards that no one would call exemplary, be they acted-out parts or real-life footage. Extraneous sub-stories occur, such as running out of fuel, the detritus and haphazard nature of the breakdown garage, the spirit of the road trip, the officials meting out the governed laws, the infallibility of the product and the overwhelming adoration of travel. 

Image: allocine

The film is a late 1960’s, early 70’s car spotter’s dream. French outputs are naturally prevalent but also with plenty of Beetles and Opels also carving up the autoroutes. Once the story enters the Netherlands, DAFs and Volvo’s become more noticeable. So too American iron and all this before we enter the show hall. The first we see of the hallowed exhibition centre is an empty arena being marked out with string by men wearing long jackets. A subsequent long shot of suited executives pontificating whose stand is positioned where, their legs constantly overstepping the string, is a sight to behold. The Simca and backdrop have by now arrived in Amsterdam along with the dozens of real manufacturers showing their wares.


The Altra truck however suffers an ever-deteriorating run of luck. Running out of fuel, a slipping clutch (the heavy traffic!) and upsetting the Dutch authorities by speeding through customs without stopping. This extra delay does have the advantage of revealing the Camper Van’s nuances, demonstrated by Hulot, the truck driver and Kimberley to great delight from the Dutch police in their compound.

Tiny chairs that unfold from the rear bumpers, the central rear bumper which pulls out into a grille/barbecue, upon which a chop is thrown, sizzling in seconds. The rear lights pull out from their housing connected by a cable, their base magnetic. Placing the light on the van’s rear, one can light the cooking or showering area, for the van is complete with water supply. Switch on the engine for hot water. Of course, the details are shoddy. Fitting the wrong rubberised pipes, gas  emanates from the shower, whereas water shoots from the gas ring. One very neat van trick is then demonstrated by Maria; the van’s load area extends for more sleeping room. Paperwork duly approved, the van along with their now quite exasperated team can once again set off for the show.

The film then takes on a surreal aspect as the truck is involved in an accident that could only be described as theatre. At a police-controlled junction, Kimberley’s dainty yellow Siata Spring sprints through, sending the policeman spinning. The following Altra truck then makes (pretty light) contact with a red Beetle, unleashing a choreographed multiple pile up. A white DS is thrust nose forward at a forty-five-degree angle, its pipe smoking driver looking blissfully unconcerned as his car careers into a Mini Traveller, causing endless 360 spins until this too impacts into a Ford Cortina, in turn connecting with a 2CV which loses a wheel. The Dutch registered red Beetle then chases after the wheel, its bonnet flapping as a crocodile’s jaws.

Image: dvdbeaver

Suddenly, the melee is over with, in the main, pride and metal the only casualties. Stunned motorists exit their bent vehicles, bending and stretching off the impacts as a priest offers his beige Beetle the last rites. The Altra Camper Van, damaged in the accident, requires attention; another delay which impacts upon the manger and salesman as the show is in full swing with their showpiece lost somewhere in the Dutch countryside, being repaired by rotund fellow living aside a canal.


The film contains, for me at least, many laugh out loud moments. In one instance toward the film’s conclusion, Hulot observes a rival product from BLMC. The look of incredulity upon his face as the half show car does its magic turn is a silver screen magic moment.

Oscar material this film never was, but as an insight into the European motoring world of fifty years ago, Trafic is a wonderful time capsule. You are urged to seek a copy. Battered clothing, optional.

Author: Andrew Miles

Beyond hope there lie dreams; after those, custard creams?

11 thoughts on “Trafic”

  1. And then Renault named a van after it.

    Examples of which have turned up locally with Mitsubishi badging. This means that you can find this model of van with Renault, Opel, Vauxhall, Nissan, Mitsubishi, and Fiat badging.

    Making something of a Trafic jam.

  2. Good morning, Andrew. A movie unknown to me. I’m out of battered clothing, but since it’s optional I can probably watch it. The DS you mention appears to be a 1963 IDéal 19. Here’s the car

    And the look on the driver’s face

  3. Andrew, what a nice early Christmas present! I have very fond memories of going to the local cinema (in leafy north-west Surrey) at around the age of 15 to see the film. Can you imagine how exotic all the foreign cars and European locations seemed to be?

    I think the only scene that you have not mentioned that I clearly remember is the closing/credits sequence with a gridlock traffic jam of face-lift Mark I Ford Capris (all with yellow headlamps, of course).

  4. Good morning Andrew and thank you for sharing a movie completely unknown to me. I wonder of the poster in your opening image might have inspired this badge on the Trafic van?

    Note the elongated ‘f’.

  5. As a Jacques Tati fan from young age, many thanks for reminding me today of Trafic!
    It was unfortunately Tati’s last big screen movie and a heavily compromised one, given the failure of his preceeding movie, the genial, seminal and gigantic Playtime, that had been at the time the most expensive french movie production. For Trafic, Tati’s freedom and budget were severely curtailed, the movie even initially intended to be co-directed with Dutch Bert Haanstra. It results, in my opinion, in an compromised and slightly uncoesive movie, but with some great gags and particularly enjoyable, as you mention, for period car spotting.

    1. There’s a hilarious story concerning Swedish filmmaker Lasse Hallström (No relation to me) that was sent by the Swedish Television where he worked in his early twenties to make an interview with Tati and the making of the film Trafic. I think they sent a team of two or three men, besides Hallström there was a camera man and perhaps a sound assistant. After the interview was over, Tati explained to them that he was in a terrible predicament concerning the film, he was severely over budget and his team had simply gone home because he couldn’t pay them, and couldn’t the Swedish Television perhaps help him wrap the film up? So it happened Hallström and his team stayed a couple of days extra and effectively worked as Tatis second unit during the last few days of filming, totally uncredited, and for no pay, I would guess.

  6. Here’s the trailer – there are some great visual gags and I think it’s one of those films where you’d notice more each time you watched it. It’s also a visually appealing movie, full of colour and interesting details.

  7. In the contexts of being assessed as part of Jacques Tati’s work, Trafic is much maligned and is almost exclusively referred to as a dissapointing cinematic attempt, after Playtime which preceded it. I’ve always been uncomfortable with this view. Playtime can be considered as an absolute masterpiece, without question one of the most wonderful films in the history of cinema. Whatever followed would have suffered in comparison, even when disregarding the difficult financial position Jacques Tati found himself in after the gross over expenditure of Playtime.
    Thanks to funding from a prominent figure in the art world, who insisted as part of the deal that his then partner be cast as the lovely Kimberley, Traffic had the budget to go ahead. Although this was at a level that likely wouldn’t have covered the cost of a single scene in either of his two preceeding films.
    It’s a film I re-watched a couple of months ago. It really is glorious. The colours, the fashion, the Siata, the wonderful subtlety of Tati’s humour. As Andrew describes, the car scenery alone make it a must for any DTW visitor. (When watched, if any of you want to see Simca 1500’s en masse, Playtime will provide).
    My favourite laugh out loud moment is the scene where the Amsterdam motor show has been mostly vacated. Viewed from a camera set high in the roof line we spend minutes watching the white jacketed workers swiftly walking across the empty floor, only to be occasionally interrupted by hugely exaggerated leg movements as they step over the, invisible to us, chain barriers that had sectioned off the car stand locations. Descriptions of humour never really work, certainly not from me – you must watch it. It’ll be out there on the YouTube no doubt.
    Thank you Andrew for bringing focus onto a film that deserves so much more credit than it has received.

    1. The chain barriers aren’t only invisible to us, the gag is that they weren’t even there for filming. Like one of the best sight/sound gags in the history of filmmaking, from Playtime; the totally silent door that don’t even give a squeek when it is slammed so hard the entire partition walk vibrates with it. The gag is of course they filmed without sound and added every single sound in editing, and for that particular tag they simply didn’t add any sound. It’s genius in its simplicity.

  8. Sorry Andrew. In my enthusiasm to respond, I overlooked that you also shared comments on my favourite scene. I laughed when I originally read it – then bizarrely forgot and highlighted the scene myself. A mistake I’ll put down to passing years..

  9. Thanks for a great dive into a treasure of a film. The R4’s accessories caught my imagination as a child, but it was only later that I appreciated the trove of 1960s European cars, and that gorgeous mid-century French colour palette (see also Playtime, Un Homme et Une Femme, Le Mans and many others).

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