Jour de fête

Director: Jacques Tati
Screenplay: Jacques Tati and Henri Marquet
Stars: Jacques Tati (François, le facteur), Guy Decomble (Roger), Paul Frankeur (Marcel), Santa Relli (Germaine), Maine Vallée (Jeannette), Robert Balpo (Le châtelain), Delcassan (La commère), Jacques Beauvais (Le cafetier), Valy (Edith), Roger Rafal (Le coiffeur)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1949
Country: France
Jour de fête Criterion Collection Blu-ray
Jour de fêteKnowing now what a cinematic giant Jacques Tati would become, it is particularly amusing to go back and read Variety’s initial critical response to his feature film debut, Jour de fête. Beyond the first two sentences, which incorrectly give credit to American showman Borrah Minevitch for “discovering” Tati and getting the film produced (his only role was to help secure distribution in the U.S.), the review consists of the following: “The story, which is of the thinnest, shows a French village on a holiday. There is practically no plot. Supporting cast is of very small importance compared to Tati, who does the village postman. Jean Yatove’s music is adequate and direction, technique and tempo are all okay. But the one thing that counts in the picture is Tati’s antics, with practically no dialog.”

It is clear that the unnamed critic who penned this review had little point of reference for dealing with Tati’s unique brand of cinema, which revived the silent-era art of slapstick comedy and married it with a sense of narrative detachment that would come to define the emerging European art cinema, particularly the French New Wave, which was still a decade away. While critic Dave Kehr has given Tati’s second feature, Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday (1953) primary credit for driving “the decisive first wedge between the cinema and classical narration,” that tendency is already clearly evident in Jour de fête.

A feature-length expansion of Tati’s 1947 short film L’école des facteurs (The School for Postmen), Jour de fête is a genial, ambling comedy that uses the figure of a klutzy postman named François (played by Tati himself) as the centerpoint for a series of comedic episodes involving a small French village preparing for a big festival. The entire film was shot in and around the rural village of Sainte-Sévère-sur-Indre in the Berry region, which Tati knew well after having spent several years there during World War II to avoid forced conscription into the work program of the invading Germans (the Service du Travail Obligatoire).

As in Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday, the film features a cast of characters that represent the familiar types one would associate with postwar provincial France—the mayor, the butcher, the café owner, the carnies who roll into town with their merry-go-round and games of chance (and cinema!), an elderly woman who is always crossing the street with her little dog, the children who swarm wherever they sense something fun. The aggregate effect is one of great familiarity, and Tati uses that familiarity to draw out the amusing details, the funny effects, the unexpected pleasures. In contrast to his later films, especially his ambitious masterpiece PlayTime (1967), Jour de fête feels almost miniscule, but always in a good way. Rather than manically forcing his humor, which is how so many comedies operate today, Tati shares it; he invites us into his world and allows us to stroll around and enjoy ourselves while catching glimpses of the comical in the everyday.

As the Variety review suggests, Tati is the star of the film, and his clumsy, well-meaning antics as François, who is inspired to ramp up his mail delivery after watching a film about the speed and efficiency of the U.S. postal service (this was, after all, in the years before the French postal service was mechanized), produce some of the films biggest laughs. With a brushy, hangdog moustache and ill-fitting uniform (especially the pants, which are baggy and tucked into his seemingly over-large boots), Tati is amusing just to look at, and as he would do with Monsieur Hulot, he magically combines ineptitude and dignity, creating a character you can’t help but love even as he creates mayhem everywhere he goes. Well, “mayhem” is a bit of a strong word, since François’s clumsiness—which constantly stymies his genuine desire to help out—usually results in little more than inconveniences and minor accidents, especially when he lends a hand in raising a flagpole in the center of town. The humor is mostly physical, and Tati’s grace combines the split-second timing of Keaton, the physical daring of Lloyd, and the sentiment of Chaplin. Although this was his first feature film, he had been playing the music halls since the early ’30s, about the same time he appeared in his first short film, Oscar, champion de tenis (1932).

There is some irony in discussing Tati as a throwback to the silent film era because it invariably leads to the assumption that he was something of a Luddite, a filmmaker who was trying to go backward in time rather than forward. This couldn’t be further from the truth because, even though Tati found his greatest inspiration in the forms of physical comedy that tended to dominate during the silent era, he was actually quite innovative and daring in his use of technology—consider, for example, his use of 65mm and six-track stereo sound in PlayTime (1967) or his experimentation with video in Parade (1973).

This tendency toward technical and aesthetic experimentation was present at the very beginning of his feature film career, as Jour de fête was originally shot in a new additive color process called Thomas-Color, which would have made it one of the very first color French films. Unfortunately, the process was untested at the time and Tati was never able to produce a useable color print, so for years Jour de fête was seen only in black-and-white, the print for which existed only because Tati had shot two cameras simultaneously, one with black-and-white film stock for “backup” (the full color version of the film wasn’t seen until 1995, when the color negative was restored and new technology enabled the creation of a color print).

Tati, ever the perfectionist, would spend years tinkering with the film, most famously in 1964 when he had portions of it hand-colored using stencils in order to reintroduce some of what he had originally intended when he shot it in Thomson-Color and shot new footage of a painter character to help justify the inclusion of color. His additions are largely unnecessary, as the original version of Jour de fête is a great joy to watch, a fun and loose comedy that displays a real sense of humanity and charm while also poking fun at our flaws and foibles. It was a great beginning to what would turn out to be an incredible filmmaking career.

Jour de fête Criterion Collection Blu-ray
The Complete Jacques Tati Criterion Collection Box SetJour de fête is available as part of The Criterion Collection’s “The Complete Jacques Tati” boxset, which also includes Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday (1953), Mon Oncle (1958), PlayTime (1967), Trafic (1971), Parade (1974), and a disc of short films. It is available on both Blu-ray (SRP $124.95) and DVD (SRP $99.95).
Aspect Ratio1.37:1
  • French Linear PCM 1.0 monaural
  • SubtitlesEnglish
  • À l’américaine, a 2013 visual essay by Tati expert Stéphane Goudet
  • Jour de fête”: In Search of the Lost Color,” a 1988 episode of Cinéma cinémas
  • Trailer
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    SRP$124.95 (boxset)
    Release DateOctober 29, 2014

    Jour de fête makes it high-definition debut in Region 1 as part of The Criterion Collector’s new “The Complete Jacques Tati” boxset, and befitting the collection’s title, we get all three versions of the film: the original black-and-white 1949 theatrical version (86 min.), the 1964 theatrical version that adds bits of stenciled color and new footage while also deleting some footage from the original version (79 min.), and the restored original full-color version (79 min.). The liner notes only indicate the transfer source of the original theatrical version: two fine-grain nitrate prints, which were restored and scanned at L’Immagine Ritrovata in Bologna, Italy. The original theatrical version of the film looks fantastic, with beautiful contrast, black levels, and detail. Digital restoration has cleaned the image up nicely, leaving only the most miniscule traces of age and wear. The bits of color in the 1964 version pop with intense saturation, which is surely Tati’s intention, although the overall quality of the print is definitely a step down from the 1949 version in terms of clarity and sharpness. The color version of the film is the most problematic, owing to both the Thomas-Color process, which renders the visuals soft and a bit bleary, especially when compared to the sharp black-and-white version, and also the fact that Criterion has simply upscaled a standard-definition transfer of the film, rather than either making a new high-definition transfer or licensing the one that was including in the BFI’s Tati box (the same is true of the original 1953 theatrical version of Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday). The representation of color is nothing compared to what Technicolor had already achieved 15 years earlier, and in fact it looks a bit like the two-strip Technicolor processes of the 1920s, which leaned heavily toward reds and bluish-greens. It is fascinating to see the film in its intended color version, even if the technology was clearly inferior and the result something less than what I imagine Tati was hoping for. The original monaural soundtrack was remastered at 24-bit from the optical tracks of the two fine-grain nitrate prints. It sounds fine for its age, with the expected dynamic limitations, but little in the way of age or damage.
    There are several excellent supplements included on Criterion’s Blu-ray. First is À l’américaine (2013), a 90-minute visual essay by Tati expert Stéphane Goudet that tracks the evolution of Tati’s comedy and offers close visual and historical analysis of Jour de fête. It is, in short, essential viewing for anyone interested in the unique aspects of Tati’s cinematic genius. Also on the disc is an original theatrical trailer and “Jour de fête”: In Search of the Lost Color,” a fascinating 1988 episode of the French television series Cinéma cinémas about the search for Tati’s original color version of the film (to put it in perspective, at the start of the search no one even knew what color process had been used!). It features then-new interviews with producer Fred Orain, cinematographer Jacques Mercanton, and Tati’s daughter, Sophie Tatischeff, who was responsible for saving the color negatives from being thrown out in the mid-1970s.

    Copyright ©2014 James Kendrick

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    Overall Rating: (3.5)

    James Kendrick

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