Jour de Fête was the first feature film of the magnificent Jacques Tati and brought him to international attention. It won prizes at both Venice and Cannes and became the toast of film critics everywhere.
Tati built his reputation as an actor, director, producer, and, most especially, a comic genius on the basis of just five fictional feature films. François Truffaut called Jacques Tati (1908-1982) "perhaps the world's greatest filmmaker." All of his work emphasized physical comedy and sound effects, with a scarcity of dialogue and plot. His feature length comedies Mr. Hulot's Holiday (1953), Mon Oncle (1958), Playtime (1967), and Traffic (1972) revolved around a recurrent character, Mr. Hulot. Before there was Mr. Hulot, however, Tati had invented another recurrent character, François, the postman, in Jour de Fete.
The film is built upon his short ‘L'ecole des Facteurs’. In it he plays Francois, the postman of a small French village who is so impressed with the methods and discipline of the American postal system as seen in a training film that he tries to introduce them to his own job – he then unknowingly causes trouble on Bastille Day as a fair is happening in his small town. As with all Tati’s films, the connection between the theory and the real world is never quite secure, leading to all manner of comic opportunities, which the film gleefully seizes.
More earthbound than his later movies, Jacques Tati's first feature-length film gains poignancy in hindsight of the Monsieur Hulot pictures -- the world he so lovingly celebrates here is to become a memory amid the future glass and steel of ‘progress’. [Inverted commas].
His provincial pride hurt by the breathless panting of a newsreel panting on high-tech American mail carriers, François goes postal: devising shortcuts to speed up delivery, he punctures the village's sit-back-and-watch-the-geese-go-by type harmony. The movie begins with vignettes of the unhurried lives of the ordinary folks the town is filled with, seen through the eyes of an observant wise old lady. All beautifully observed and lovingly portrayed.
The main Tati hallmark is essentially a tone of overwhelming gentleness blending with and a fear of technology taking over nature…Jacques Tati displayed, in unequivocal terms, his genius at crafting marvellous humour and wit, with understated layers of pathos and social commentary, out of the simplest and most mundane activities and stories. He also embodies the visualization of comedy; one that soaks up the story's reactionary whimsy and makes Tati not so much the heir of Chaplin and Keaton.
Emulating Chaplin in Modern Times, Tati would often unleash his screen persona amid technology run faceless and wild. Dancing himself through the manmade environment with a pipe and a cane, he responded to mechanical chaos as matter-of-factly, as dexterously, as straight-facedly as Buster Keaton in The General.
The essence of those comic geniuses and their comic art extends from the positioning of people and objects within the spaces of the screen, so that the humour of any situation arises not from the raw materials by themselves but from how they relate to the totality of the world. This is truly international humour, very visual in style, with a minimal plot in which music, sound effects and speech are used only as embellishments.
The behind-the-scenes story of the film is an interesting one…
There are three different versions of Jour de Fête that have been produced. Tati originally conceived of the film as a colour film. Had he succeeded in releasing the film in colour, it would have been the first ever French film in colour, but Tati ran into insurmountable difficulties. The colour process that he worked with was a newly developed experimental technique called Thomson-Colour. It was intended to be the French answer to Technicolor that was revolutionizing filmmaking in Hollywood at the time. Tati had the good sense to use two cameras throughout the filmmaking process, one with the Thomas-Colour film and the other with conventional black-and-white. That turned out to be a wise decision because the Thomas-Colour film could not be processed after it was shot.
Tati was quite disappointed because he had specific plans for the colour element of the film. He had taken the trouble to have the doors of the various houses that appear in the film painted gray and to ensure that all of the colours in the village would be dull and muted – until the arrival of the carnival. Then suddenly, the bright colours of the merry-go-round horses, banners, and canopies would spring forth and the entire village would light up in colour, a bit like the first appearance of colour in The Wizard of Oz (1939). So, it was with great reluctance that Tati finally resigned himself to releasing the film in black-and-white. It took Tati a year to find a distributor, but, in the end, the film was a big success.
In 1964 Tati decided to re-edit, re-mix the sound and hand colour the titles on the film. He also chose to film extra footage, adding another character, that of a painter. This version became the standard, until fairly recently. In 1995 the film was given a painstaking restoration. This involved using the original colour film where possible, and using computer colourisation techniques for the remaining film. Of interest though are night scenes - they have been left in black and white.
Tati the actor is lanky and awkward with all the skill of the great silent comedians to command the screen. The timing and sheer cleverness of the gags is breathtaking. But, above all, this film is supremely good-natured. We can laugh at the idiocies and embarrassment of Francois and his fellow villagers, but only because we recognise ourselves in them. Perfectly managing to be neither acerbic nor sentimental, just gently and gloriously funny, Jour de Fete is a delight.