Jour de fête

France (1949) Dir. Jacques Tati

I have to confess that I find Tati’s work to be something of an acquired taste. It’s not that I don’t appreciate his style of esoteric, mostly plotless comedies because I do – I just don’t seem able to “get it” on the same level as others do thus Tati’s much revered genius isn’t as obvious to me as it is for some.

So, while I found Mr. Hulot’s Holiday and Mon Uncle to be enjoyable surreal romps, they didn’t overwhelm me as the life changing experiences they have been for other cineastes, which lead me to approach the viewing of Jour de fête with some trepidation. As it transpires, I enjoyed this pre-Hulot film more than the others and at least found most of the jokes easier to appreciate, eliciting a few actual laughs to boot!

As is the case with Tati’s films the plot is rather threadbare, or rather is an inconvenience around which silly things tend to happen. Central to these occurrences is the small town of Sainte-Severe-sur-Indre which is about to be descended upon by a travelling fun fair for their annual festivities. One resident of note is the easily distracted postman François (Tati) whose postal rounds are interrupted by his interactions with the denizens of the town and the attractions of the fair.

One in particular is a small film show in which a newsreel about the US mail service is shown. The impressive volume of work completed through the use of modern technology, such as sporting machines, motorbikes and airplanes depresses François who relies on his trusty old bicycle for his deliveries. So after drowning his sorrows, the next day François attempts to up his game and modernise his work methods to improve his results.

This may seem a pretty solid foundation to build a film around but the actuality is that this plot outline doesn’t actually take effect until almost three quarters of the way into the film. Everything else prior to this is a non-stop stream of comedy of errors involving François and the quirky parade characters residing in Sainte-Severe-sur-Indre.

Jour de fête is something of a curio as there are a few different versions available for different reasons. The original intention was for this film to be the first French film to be shot in colour using a then untested system called Thomson-color, but Tati was sceptical and wisely had black and white cameras rolling at the exact same time, which proved a portentous move as Thomson went bankrupt before the film could be processed. The black and white version was then released with a few splashes of colour hand painted onto the film by Tati himself.

In 1964 a second version appeared in which Tati added a painter to observe and add an English narration to the proceedings which is the version many are familiar with. The version under review here is the restored colourised version from 1995 which was completed by Tati’s daughter Sophie Tatischeff and follows Tati’s original vision. Despite the best efforts the colour isn’t perfect but is adequate enough and at the risk of committing blasphemy I found this version more enjoyable than the protracted black and white version.

This was in fact Tati’s first feature length film after making just two shorts and is a rather confident effort although he doesn’t take as many chances with the surreal humour as he does in his later films. However his unique style is very evident early on even before he makes his on screen appearance some ten minutes into the film, riding awkwardly on his bicycle along the country lane before engaging in a battle with some pesky insects!

From here on in, François’s presence seems to inadvertently lead to chaos and mayhem to the most mundane and simplest of situations. Like the best slapstick comedy Tati keeps it simple for great effect – case in point, a very well timed sight gag involving the placement of a chair which is so incidental you might miss it until you realise the follow up gag is impending with haste. Another great gag – which I can’t divulge for fear of spoiling it – is part verbal part visual and is another blink and you miss it gem to demonstrate Tati’s keen eye for joke construction.

Possibly the highlight is the antics of François as he tries to negotiate the remainder of his postal round and a ride home on his bicycle while under the influence of some potent alcohol. In scenes of simple genius François tangles with a twisted wheel and struggles to mount his bike when it rests alongside a fence. Conversely when he is sobered up and striving to improve his delivery times on his rounds, his haste leads to more ingenious set ups including an ahead of its time runway bicycle chase! In fact the bike was such an important component of this film that it received a casting credit alongside the human actors!

What works so well with Tati’s humour is the small town setting, the bucolic and humble setting adds a quaint quality to the mood which is about to be disrupted by François and the fun fair. The magic comes from that fact that no-one bats an eyelid at the silliness which ensues as it actually seems part of everyday life for this quirky bunch, and they are exactly that – from the wizened old lady who walked with a hunch, to the cross eyed labourer, from the heavy handed hairdresser to the angry bar owner, this is well drawn representation of traditional rural village.

I’m not sure if Jour de fête has made me into a Tati convert but I do appreciate him and the sheer brilliance of his comic craftsmanship and gag construction much more than I did before. Mr. Hulot’s Holiday may be Tati’s magnum opus but for this writer this is the film which I think I have finally “got it”. Really fun film!