|Knowing 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.
Copyright ©2014 James Kendrick
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Overall Rating: (3.5)
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