Horror, The Universal Language 1: Insanity in Repulsion (1965) & Clean, Shaven (1993)

Posted by Charles Reece, October 25, 2009 11:43pm | Post a Comment
In terms of movies, horror is the most philosophically rich of the various genres, generally giving a more truthful commentary on us humans than any of its generic brethren (science fiction is equally compelling as a literary genre, but it just hasn't lived up to its potential in film -- cf. Tarkovsky's religious mockery of one the great atheistic novels, Solaris, to catch my drift). Since my only costume for Halloween is a wet blanket, why not offer a series of double-feature suggestions as a way of getting into the spirit? I'm going to stay away from the ones everyone should've already seen (yes, Kubrick's The Shining is the greatest horror film ever made, end of discussion) and none by directors with the initials D.L. I plan on doing one a day, ending either with Halloween, or until I run out of categories, or I just get plumb sick of doing this. First up, the fear of the irrational, or, more appropriately, the fear of losing one's grasp on reality.


A common refrain in horror film criticism since the 70s has been that the genre makes us confront the faults in the architecture of reason. This critique usually goes by the name of postmodernism and its big bugaboo by the name of the Cartesianism. René Descartes had some difficulty reconciling how all the immaterial, mental stuff was able to effect changes in all the meaty stuff we call physical, creating the primary Cartesian dichotomy called mind-body dualism. No one's figured a way out of that mess yet, but who cares since we're talking about horror movies. The important point is that Descartes tended to privilege reason over all that biological machinery, so he gets the blame for all the scientistic / instrumentalist / phallocentric / logocentric / patriarchal domination that has supposedly developed since the 17th Century. (I remain skeptical of this demonization of the Rationalists for the simple reason that I'd prefer to live after the Enlightenment than before it.)

As this common critique has it, with the contemporary horror film (from the 60s to the present), the horror affect arises from the suppressed half of the dichotomy returning with a vengeance. Thus, what's scary is when the body, emotions, technology, nature, the feminine or whatever else might've been defined or ignored as the Big Other by the rationalist hegemony -- serving as its structuring absence -- begin to make themselves terrifyingly present (the so-called "return of the repressed" that was popularized in film criticism by Robin Wood's take on Romero's zombie films). A relevant feminist spin on the critique is offered by Isabel Cristina Pinedo:

[P]ostmodern horror defies the Cartesian construction of reason that reduces it to instrumental rationality and pits it against emotion and intuition. According to the Cartesian construction of reason, rationality is masculine, associated with mastery, and requires the domestication of irrationality, which is feminine and associated with the body and disorder. This limited conception of reason disparages the feminine. Postmodern horror combines, in the (often female) figure of the hero, instrumental rationality and intuition. -- p. 96, The Horror Film

It was this quote that gave me the idea for the first double-feature. Note that as a supposed feminist, Pinedo doesn't defend the feminine as capable of belonging to the rationalist enterprise, but mostly agrees with the old patriarchal view that women just ain't good at math, being from Venus and all. Instead, she chooses to degrade the value of reason, suggesting what the postmodern horror film teaches us is that we need to rely more on our "gut instincts" or "intuition" -- that is, "femininity" qua feelings. I prefer the kind of feminism that suggests women are just as capable as men at being rational and good at science, and not this "lowering the standards." In other words, reason, logic and the like aren't patriarchal, but the cultural support for the hard thinking disciplines which rely on them has been. It is reason, after all, that is the best base for arguing about the mental and social equality of the sexes. Thus, women, just as much as men, have something to fear in losing rational control.

More often than not, horror films are fantasies relying on the supernatural, so giving into irrational forces tends to make sense. As I argued here, defining rationality in such a diegesis by our world's reality isn't particularly rational when there's a psychotic leprechaun or sentient Jell-O roaming about. In such worlds, someone like Gandalf is actually a rational agent. He has a proven experimental track record that demonstrates the reliability of his magic, which in the real world would be nothing more than the hucksterism of an Aleister Crowley. (Also, I note that women aren't any more likely to be wizards -- particularly of the good variety -- in fantasies than scientists in the real world, suggesting that feminist critique should target the qualifications of being in control, rather than reason per se.) Anyway, what's most important to me about Roman Polanski's Repulsion and Lodge Kerrigan's Clean, Shaven is that they're both effective horror films, eliciting the necessary reflexes of the genre, but that do so by rooting the affect in the real world, not a fantastic one. As such, there doesn't exist a fantastically derived justification for the critique of reason that mucks up so many analyses of the genre. The horror comes from feeling along with the protagonists the loss of control over reality. That the insanity is just as terrifying for Catherine Deneuve (in Repulsion) as it is for Peter Greene (in Clean, Shaven) indicates that rationality isn't a masculine versus feminine issue. Both films are exceptional in the postmodern age of horror (as Pinedo and the like call it) by going against the grain and using the genre to argue for reason over gut instinct, where the latter only pulls the protagonists further into a solipsistic abyss. 

Both films are available in beautiful Criterion editions (Repulsion can be had on blu-ray, even).

Next up, body horror.

Taking the Lynch Meme Challenge: Canonizing David Lynch

Posted by Charles Reece, October 6, 2009 11:33pm | Post a Comment
No, I haven't given up on talking Inglourious Basterds to death; I'm almost finished, cross my heart. It's just that Dave Fiore distracted me with thinking about how I'd rank Lynch's feature films (The Grandmother and The Alphabet are probably my favorite shorts). Nothing will pull me into a conversation faster than my favorite living director. One thing I've noticed about my enjoyment of his films is that over time it's negatively correlated with my initial reaction: the less I liked them on first viewing, the more I like them with each re-viewing, and vice versa. Another is that I prefer the ratio-narrative Lynch to the one who lets his dreams/"ideas" take him wherever (granted, many, including Fiore, don't much agree that my preferred Lynch even exists). So, in order of my enjoyment/rewatchability/hours of mental masturbation afforded:

I. Lost Highway (1997)

Well, actually, it's the first half and finale with Bill Pullman's Fred Madison that place the film on top. For sure, LH contains some of Lynch's weakest moments: Balthazar Getty's Pete Dayton ("you liked it, hunh?"), music chosen by Trent Reznor (Bowie's "Lost Highway" over Payne's -- really?), and a menacing cameo by Marilyn Manson and Twiggy (about as spooky as W.A.S.P. in Ghoulies 2). Nevertheless, most of Lynch's major themes receive their fullest and most direct expression here: Vertig-inous duality (Renee vs. Alice), repression and oneiric escapism (the hallways, Fred's fugue state as a release from his impotence and murderous deed), and the demands of the always elusive Real (the intrusive mirror, phone calls, video tapes and, of course, Robert Blake's Virgil, the white-faced Mystery Man). Some poor casting and music supervision can't ultimately diminish Lynch and co-writer Barry Gifford's perfect construct.

II. Mulholland Dr. (2001)

Fiore, myself and many others nerded out on the dvd a few years ago and I blogged about my favorite lachrymal scene here (no one makes me cry bucketfuls like Lynch), so I'll just repeat my basic refrain that the most amazing aspect to MD is the way it creates real emotion while fully acknowledging the artifice involved. Lynch is the master of melodrama, and this is his definitive melodramatic statement.

III. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992)

For my money, FWWM contains the scariest shit I've ever seen in film (particularly the first act with Chris Isaak and Keifer Sutherland). This is horror as it should be: ubiquitous and wide-angled. Poor Laura Palmer is trapped out in the open. There's no escape from the droning horror of everyday objects, neighbors and family. Ends with a message of Heideggerian hope: only God can save us. Well, ain't that kind of depressing.

IV. The Straight Story (1999)

I get teary-eyed merely thinking about Alvin Straight reuniting with his brother or sharing his war memories with another veteran in a bar. LH splits, FWWM goes in a circle and SS escapes these entrapments by connecting with others via a straight line. Clearly, Lynch has a multivalent view of humanity.

V. Blue Velvet (1986)

Pick the scab until it bleeds. HIs most surrealistic film. America never looked the same after BV: pop culture, suburbs, teenagers, and fire engines all were revealed to have a great deal of depth. Was there much point in discussing high versus low art after '86?

VI. Eraserhead (1977)

An accurate portrayal of having kids, but other than that I don't see why many consider this a horror picture. To me, it's like trying to focus on some simple task while on your favorite hallucinogen, but you can't stop laughing.

VII. Inland Empire (2006)

Created modularly as inspiration came to him, and it feels modular, never having any real connective tissue to the various segments. This is Lynch pulling his fish from the transcendental pool of Ideas. Anyone who wants to see him as a pure intuitionist will probably find this one a definitive text (along with E and the shorts). Contrariwise, IE makes a good argument for the role of cognition in the films at the top of this list: it ambles on too long, many scenes are repetitious (within the film and of previous films), and none of the really great moments (GRACE!) have the impact of those contained in his more structured works. I'd say he's got the TM blues.

VIII. Wild at Heart (1990)

Probably the greatest of Lynch's films when you're 18, but less so as you get older. That is to say, it's his most quotable.

IX. Elephant Man (1980)

A dialectic of social structure and the individual embodied in the gnarled form of a mutant outcast. Purely as a film, independent of auteurist thinking, this ranks higher than both IE and WAH, but since it's his Rebecca, I'm less likely to go back to it when wanting to watch a Lynch film. A great biopic, making it one of, what, three?

X. Dune (1984)

If you ever wondered why Kubrick didn't have his Starchild shooting lasers from its eyes, Dune provides the answer. After 8 or so attempts at watching this in one setting, I've finally stopped trying. I can't imagine a worse fit than a director who hates explaining anything with science fiction's most prominent example of technobabble. Bad enough that one doesn't even notice Sting's acting.

Oh, and as per the rules, 5 of my favorite non-Lynch films: Touch of Evil, Juliet of The Spirits, Playtime, Deadman and Rear Window<

The Master Waits while the Servant Baits: The Servant (1963)

Posted by Charles Reece, March 29, 2009 10:04am | Post a Comment

I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.
-- W. H. Auden, "September 1, 1939"

It was Harold Pinter weekend at the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood, so I had a chance to see one of the best Joseph Losey films, The Servant, on the big screen. Pinter contributed the screenplay, based on the novel by Robin Maugham. (Because I loathe writing plot summaries, here's one.) The presentation was co-sponsored by Outfest for good reason -- it's a classic of queer cinema. Not counting the fairly recent 300, the 60s produced my favorite gay films, The Victim and The Killing of Sister George, along with Losey's. The three form a trilogy to my mind: all are British; both The Victim and The Servant feature Dirk Bogarde, the finest of cerebral actors, making you feel every thought his characters have; Losey trained  and will always be closely aligned with Robert Aldrich, the director of Sister George. Although Aldrich was more of a bare-knuckles kind of director, his film shares with the more intellectual Losey's an approach to sexual identity and politics that I prefer: as a given, full of suggestion and with a good deal of nuance.

My good pal and fellow blogger, Job, said my preference was due to a film like Sister George not being really gay. That's sort of right. But, on the other hand, I find old Hollywood films to be a lot more sexually interesting due to their working under the Hays Code than the majority of the explicitly sexual variety we have today. Sex had to be coded, in other words, to get around the Code. A six-shooter was never just a six-shooter back then. Conversely, sexuality was never just sexuality, but indicative of whatever struggles were being depicted. That is, by embuing so much with libidinal allusion, sexuality became more matter-of-factly, another interpretive grid through which culture can be read. Sex is pretty well limited to its simulated practice in Last Tango in Paris or Midnight Cowboy, but it's everywhere in Sam Fuller's Forty Guns, while being nowhere explicit.

I think a parallel can be drawn to the matter-of-fact lesbianism in Sister George, where the indiginities heaped upon its protagonist, June 'George' Buckridge, are more common -- more universal -- than the more literal minded identity politics of, say, Philadelphia. In the latter case, oppression becomes a matter of sexual identity, whereas in the former, sexual identity is just another method those in power might use as a means for subjugation. Not that there's anything wrong with the more particularized morality of Philadelphia in principle (The Victim is doubtlessly a much better earlier version), but unless one already identifies with its gay protragonist, the story remains one about the Other. Sister George requires no such identification, but is instead a reflection of power itself, irrespective of sexual orientation or gender.

Likewise, the sexual desideratum in The Servant isn't as important as the way desire itself is used for control. The film overlays Hegel's master-slave dialectic onto the sexual dynamics of Gilda. Whereas Charles Vidor's film had Rita Hayworth coming between two men in love, making it impossible (along with the Code, of course) for them to ever conjugate their feelings in a more literal manner, The Servant features the corrosive effects a servant, Hugo (Bogarde), has on the relationship between an aristocrat, Tony, and his girlfriend, Susan. Befitting their class status, Tony and Susan have all the style privilege can buy without any personal involvement, or real taste. They are what they are because it's de rigueur for them to be so. Hugo, however, has had to hone his taste in order to survive. Tony doesn't have to think about aesthetics or much of anything, really, because he can just pay people like Hugo to do it for him. It's this lack of self-consciousness that Hugo uses to gain domination over Tony. This struggle is realized in Losey's triarchic mise en scène where Hugo goes from being a physical mediating presence between Tony and Susan to a psychological one, casting a shadow over every aspect of their relationship.

"Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows!"

The master-servant domination in social hierarchy won't work if the upper class becomes fully conscious of the lower class as an equally present, fully conscious agent. Morally equivalent agents require a parity of treatment, the same respect one would give to another of one's own class. Thus, as Susan becomes aware of the structuring influence Hugo is having on Tony, she resists by reasserting her dominant position over the former through a variety of petty means. She rearranges Hugo's placement of flowers and demands that he drop what he's doing in order to walk across the room to light her cigarette.

The pettiness of cultural management.

Now, a lesser story would've set up Hugo as an anarchic outsider hero, demolishing cultural insitutions and declaring his independence. Certainly, Tony and Susan are real unlikable snots, but The Servant sets  up Hugo as just as dependent on social roles as the master class. When he can assert the power that comes from his position as an upper crust servant, he becomes just as petty as Susan. Rather than identifying with the carpenters working on Tony's home, Hugo micro-manages them, telling them to do things they already know to do.

Some are more equal than others.

Without a whit of self-reflection, Hugo becomes offended in the next scene when Tony orders him to bring the brandy while he's already in the process of doing so.

I was just doing that, sir.

Like the poor Mid-Westener voting for corporate interests on the always undelivered promise of future wealth ("everyone could be rich someday," cry dittoheads), there's no moral purpose to Hugo's machinations, only a desire to usurp or feed off Tony's privileged existence.

Burning desire.

Hugo is an exemplary protagonist for Auden's little poem with which I began. It's often quoted in reference to Israel and the Palestinians. In fact, I got it from Benny Morris' Righteous Victims: A History of the Zionist-Arab Conflict, 1881-2001. As the question goes: how could a historically oppressed people turn around and support an apartheid system? Without diving into that mudpie, The Servant demonstrates how the powerless need to serve the dictates of the empowered, taking the practice of the dominant as its own, in order to achieve power. When Hugo says that he really loves his work, I believe him. He isn't a butler just to pay the bills, but has constructed himself to be the perfect servant as a means to access a lifestyle that would've otherwise been denied him by birth. He lives for those moments when Tony is away, so that he can sleep in his master's bedroom and bathe in his master's bathroom. For these brief pleasures, Hugo spends his days warming the much less refined Tony's feet in a foot tub, decorating his house, and supplying him with a bottomless glass.
I want to drink you up.

Tony's increasing addiction to alcohol is symbolic of how reliant he becomes on Hugo. When the repressive Susan demands that Hugo be fired for interfering with their relationship, Tony asks how could he ever find another like him. By this point, Hugo has won the battle against Susan, having become for Tony what semiotician C. S. Peirce called an interpretant. As the subject, Tony relates to all the objects in his life -- including Susan -- through the refractive lens of Hugo. Losey uses the distortion of a convex mirror as an objective correlative for Tony's emotional disintegration. By the end, he's reduced to a cultural place holder for Hugo's own desires.

"Don't you fucking look at me!"

The coup de grâce is in getting his fiance, Vera, hired on as the maid. Tony is led to believe that she's Hugo's sister. Having no firmer grasp on morality than the two men, the déclassé succubus tempts Tony (at the butler's devising) into giving up his last breath of potential resistance (he's too comfortable to ever offer any actual resistance).

When the cord gets pulled, and Tony discovers the truth about his servants, his cultural position no longer provides a place to hide. As an extension of Hugo, the sexual gratification offered by Vera proves to little more than Tony's sublimated dirty desire for his man-servant, homoeroticism by proxy. When he's depicted crying on Vera's bed, the posters above him say it all:

Although no sexual contact is ever made between Hugo and Tony, the latter now needs the former for  satisfying even that most basic human desire. After Hugo wiles his way back into Tony's home, the old master-servant arrangement is nothing but a game they play if it appears at all. No more buttoned up suits and slicked back hair. The house is in shambles just like Tony's mental state. The only things Hugo now supplies are women, food and booze. Otherwise, he openly mocks his erstwhile master. They waste their days throwing balls at each, bickering, and playing hide and seek.The irony here is that after realizing his desire, Hugo's life is emptier than his days as a butler. Not that he's complaining. He began as a specular entity, reflecting the desire of the wealthy and ends up pretty much the same. Any power that he's achieved is as its doorman. Only now he doesn't have to clean so much or keep his mouth shut. And his master no longer ignores him.

The odd couple.

If you compare the repression in Todd Haynes' Far From Heaven or Kimberly Peirce's Boys Don't Cry, what you get is a problem with a fairly easy solution written into it, namely an enlightened liberal attitude. isn't it awful how gays used to have to hide their sexual identity in the 50s, or how transvestites are treated in some podunk Nebraskan town? Well, yes. That's going to be glaringly apparent to anyone willing to see such movies. You come out with what you brought in. That's because these movies stop at presenting identity, without really critiquing what structures it. Their problematic is localized to a time and/or place. "Such repression isn't really like me," the target audience can safely say. The Servant doesn't provide its audience with that escape hatch. The homosexuality might be latent, but it's pervasive -- no sign in the film can be read without it. It's not borne out of the positive or romantic love seen in Peirce's film, but is a function of power, a hamster-in-a-plastic-ball struggle between the dominant and the submissive. So, in that sense, it's not really a gay film. But the depravity of the heterosexual relations is rendered even less ambiguously. The traumatic theme of The Servant is that subjugation of the will doesn't always occur from the outside (the rednecks, the past, the upper class), but it's consitutive of modern society, regardless of particular identifications. Idenitity politics couldn't exist without it. As the saying goes, "shit rolls down hills."

The Jigoku Aesthetic: Hell as Excessive Specular Mediation

Posted by Charles Reece, March 8, 2009 08:42pm | Post a Comment





Try not to hate

Love your mate
Don't suffocate on your own hate

Designate your love as fate

A one world state

As human freight

A heavy weight
Or just too late

Like pretty Kate has sex ornate
Now devastate




The truth dilate

Special date

The animal we ate

Guilt debate

The edge serrate

A better rate
The youth irate



To moderate

Or detonate
Atomic fate

Clear the state

Now radiate

A perfect state

Food on plate

The Earth's own weight

Designate your love as fate

At ninety-eight we all rotate



Overflowing with brackish ponds of bubbling pus, brain-­rattling disjunctions of sound and image, and at times almost dauntingly incomprehensible plot twists and eye-assaulting bouts of brutish montage, Jigoku is more than merely a boundary-pummeling classic of the horror genre—it’s as lurid a study of sin without salvation as the silver screen has ever seen. -- Chuck Stephens


Posted by Charles Reece, March 1, 2009 08:31pm | Post a Comment
If I can just get off of this LA freeway
Without getting killed or caught
I'd be down that road in a cloud of smoke
For some land that I ain't bought
-- Guy Clark, "L.A. Freeway"

There are few directors I rank up there with Hitchcock, but Jacques Tati is one of them. I finally got around to watching Criterion's release of Trafic, his final installment in the Monsieur Hulot series. If Playtime is his Vertigo, then that would make Trafic his North By Northwest, only it didn't put Tati back on top of the commerical foodchain. After the box-office failure of Playtime, Tati had to take a step backwards, at least production-wise. Maybe that's why the critics never gave his followup the same attention as all the other Hulot flicks, the artistry of each increasing at exponential rate over the last. And maybe the diminished role of the Hulot character in Trafic is the reason it didn't do much better than Playtime among the masses (that's the reason Jonathan Romney gives). I suspect it was due to the same brazen social critique condemning his former film to academic circles, resulting in the charge of pretension from newspaper reviewers and the like. Most people like to keep their seriousness and humor separate.

In the opening credit sequence, Tati looks straight down the maw of an automobile assembly line, creating an effect similar to the infinite regress of two mirrors facing each other. The men are as much like replicas as the parts they're pushing through the machine. After having spent a couple years doing register duty in retail, a musician buddy of mine commented the other night that if America spent as much time habituating its citizens to the piano keys as it does to menial tasks in the service of commerce, the creative possibilites would be limitless. As it stands, those guys in that shot don't stand much of a chance of doing anything else with the procedural knowledge they've acquired. Dan Lalande expresses a similar thought in his evaluation of the film in the latest Cineaction:

Trafic, Tati's underrated ideological road movie, quietly adds that man, now metallically sealed off from the capacity for genuine experience, barely feels the loss any more. [...] Yes, the still recognizable Hulot [...] remains the perpetual outsider, facilitating the classic comic formula of the bumbling innocent set loose against a stuffy, functionary backdrop, but his newfound servility serves as a telling comment on the diminished role of the artist in an increasingly deracinated society, devalued by the silently unstoppable energies of industrialization, commerce and crass commercialism (as does a choice running gag on the awarding of free busts of famous artists by a gas station).

Scene is accompanied by a radio announcement: "Commercials inform us."

Yet, there's beauty in ritualized movement itself, even though it registers a bit of comical sadness. Movement is always the saving grace in Tati's existentialism. He was not some simple-minded Marxist. The confining nature of Fordist assembly-line habitus didn't stifle his aesthetic appreciation of mechanized motion. In the extras accompanying the Criterion edition, Tati suggests that mime is the "purest form of expression" and that "a good comic learns to use his legs." Thus, it makes sense that he would follow his critique of the effects of modernist architecture on human movement with a similar critique of modernity's primary means of transportation, the car. Rather than being a luddite, as has oft-been claimed, Tati's Hulot is here a designer for Altra Automobiles, preparing his experimental camper model for an auto show in Amsterdam. The brunt of the Sisyphean comedy is carried by the surmounting obstacles preventing the Altra team from delivering the model on time.

As a former mime, Tati was adroit at physically articulating the movements of the culture around him, which he continually demonstrates in the aforementioned interviews. When he duplicates the bodily motions of traffic cops in Paris and London, the English audience laughs, recognizing the difference. As Tati explains, his comedy of movement comes about by its placement in a real setting, in situ. He cites as an example (through mimetic performance) an official delivering Legion of Honor medals to the wrong side of General de Gaulle during a televised event in front of many politicians, generals, soldiers and a viewing audience. Rather than having The General flip back to the other side, the official did one of those bureaucratic Monty Pythonesque steps to correct his mistake. As Tati explains, Laurel and Hardy would've had to add something else to make the official's movement funny for the movies, but the pomp and circumstance were enough for reality.

The interviews suggest two levels to Tati's use of movement. The first, more critical one, is as a cultural sign, the way society and its artifacts constrain, regulate and define our movements. The other, a pure pleasure in watching bodies in motion, isn't reducible to cultural encoding, and allows for something more personal (akin to what Barthes called the punctum in photography, if you're so inclined). I suggest that all of Tati's physical comedy begins with the latter, a joy at just watching humans move. It's this joy in the materiality of movement that keeps Trafic's social critique from being the mere pessimism expressed in Lalande's summation above. If there's something more to, say, basketball than merely scoring, then why isn't there more to men working a conveyor belt than the end product, such as a car? In other words, to quote the best poet Texas ever produced, "where you've been is good and gone; all you keep is the gettin' there."

As the perpetual hero of the gettin' there, Hulot never frets much about his ostensible goals. Even when working, he's more like a self-aware version of Kafka's numerous bureaucrats, resigned to the fact that whatever metaphorical boulder gets pushed up the hill will come down. That's probably why he was so popular with the general public: he finds fulfillment in quotidian existence, unlike the anxiety-ridden Kafkaesque heroes. Hulot, Tati's stand-in, is a native ethnographer -- a cultural insider who thinks like an outsider, a nonplussed observer as much as a participant. Whatever he might get paid for, distraction is his true vocation. Commerce isn't exactly his forte.

While one road block after another keeps him and his colleagues from meeting their deadline, Hulot strolls along.

Out of gas: it's the moments between plan and destination where humanity dwells.

If there's a protagonist in Trafic most deserving of the initial K, it's the means-to-an-end character, Maria. Suitably enough, she's an American hired by Altra as PR to ensure all the cars and trucks run on time. She embodies the Franglais double-meaning of the title:

The usual French term for traffic -- meaning the movement of motor vehicles -- is la circulation. The word trafic can be a synonym for it, but its primary meaning is traffic in the sense of commerce, the exchange of goods. -- Romney, ibid.

Maria begins the flick as an angst-ridden missle (cf. fourth photo) with one goal in mind: shepherding the truck carrying the test camper to the show, leaving little time for rituals or conversation that don't serve that end. She doesn't even have time for European traffic laws. It's hardly interpretative excess to draw a parallel between Maria's bumptious disregard for another's laws in the service of capital to that of American foreign policy, where the hedonic equation is weighted by narcissism (unilateralism when referring to the state). That is, satisfying her desire is taken as the good of the all. "Doing what needs to be done" seems more efficient when one doesn't have to bother with the constraints being imposed by the other's culture. Of course, to ignore such constraints isn't the same as there being no constraints. Thus, much like the unintended consequences from propping up a right-wing dictactor in the service of realpolitik, Maria's self-assertive expediency ultimately keeps the Altra team from reaching its destination on time. Blowing through a road-block gets the truck impounded. And, in the film's major set-piece, her ignoring a traffic cop's directions results in an arabesque of destruction that should bring a tear to the eye of most ardent monster truck enthusiast:

Since Hulot never really changes, the most interesting character arc is Maria's. With the seemingly endless barriers before her team, she comes to realize the auto show as quixotic, and begins to move more at Hulot's speed. As a fairly anxious guy, I'm not sure I'll ever get where she and Hulot end up, but there's a certain kind of freedom in learning to mime the ebb and flow of one's surrounding. Namely, the world ceases to be points on a map.

"Ah, fuck it! Let's have a picnic."

Altra's manager continues to fight the good fight, eating under artificial trees, waiting for his product to fulfill the
manufactured landscape.

Always going with the flow, Hulot returns for a chance at romance.

"The 'o' is upside down": the role of management in an administered society.

Technology in service of the goal-directed life.
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