“Tati is a rare bird; the mere mention of his films is liable to start people off in a laughing fit.” —Basil Wright, The Long View
It’s a curious irony in the history of film that a disproportionate share of the great comedians flourished during its first two decades. Once the movies found their voice and the joke-writers moved in, comedy underwent a drastic shift in focus.
The long absent comic essence of the silent era was suddenly revived in the hands of lovable and wildly antic filmmaker Jacques Tati. This tribute to the past helps to explain the ecstatic welcome that greeted Tati’s Jour de fete upon its release in France in 1948 and in the United States in 1952.
Jour de fete (known in the U.S. as The Big Day) was not Tati’s first film; he had made a number of short comic essays in the 1930s while pursuing a successful career as a music hall performer throughout Europe. Later, he was to disown all but one of those early efforts: an 18-minute short from 1947 called L’Ecoles des facteurs, a delight in its own right and, more to the point, the immediate ancestor of Jour de fete. (L’Ecole or “The School for Postmen” is included on this disc.)
Tati spent his wartime years stationed in the village of Sainte-Sèvere-sur-Indre, not far from Perigord and its famous truffles; there he gleaned the inspiration for Francois, the rural letter carrier who forms the nucleus of Jour de fete.
A pastiche of some of the great comic figures of the past—the infinite innocence of Keaton, the manic obsessiveness of Lloyd, the forebearance and mustache of Conklin—Tati’s Francois is a creation like none other. Happy in his work and willing to abandon his appointed rounds long enough to help with the haying, or with setting up the village flagpole to honor the arrival of a traveling country fair, his gentle disposition ceasing only long enough for such matters as a battle with a marauding wasp—a gorgeous moment of pantomime.
When the fair comes to town, it comes complete with a merry-go-round, snack stand, and, most important, a tent where movies are shown. Here Francois witnesses a March-of-Time style documentary on the American Postal System’s perfected art of speedy mail delivery. “Rapidité, rapidité” intones the narrator. “Rapidité, rapidité” echoes the enthralled Francois, galvanized into a frenzied preoccupation to Americanize his own working style. Inspired by the film he has just seen, our hero speeds onward, possessed, his trusty bicycle now becomes a veritable Juggernaut, hurtling ever forward, its headlong flight finally ended in an ignominious tumble into a ditch.
It’s a film of shouts and laughter, and yet its spirit soars beyond the need for words. The jokes in Jour de fete are all visual; the best of them would do Keaton proud. Surrounding the central episode of the exploding postman is the sweetness of French rural comedy at its simplest; bringing to mind the imagery of Pagnol and Renoir.
But the film belongs to Tati, to his sublime demonstration that even in a time of the noisy soundtrack, a picture can still be worth the proverbial thousand words. Tati made the film on a mere $30,000 borrowed from friends. One disaster was his decision to shoot portions of the film in color using the Thomson-Color process that proved a failure. Fortunately, a black-and-white version was shot simultaneously. When Jour de fete was reissued in 1964, in an attempt to show how the film’s original color scheme might have looked, Tati commissioned an artist to hand tint portions of the film, such as the French tricolor. That is the version contained on this laserdisc.
Jour de fete put Tati on the map; it carried off a prize for Best Scenario at the 1949 Venice Film Festival, and a gold medal at Cannes the following year. Tati was besieged with offers to special deliver his Francois into further adventures—“The Postman Gets Married” and “The Postman in Paris” figured among the suggestions. But Tati had ideas for a different kind of character, more universal in appeal and usable in a wider variety of situations. Out of these visions emerged such a personage, Monsieur Hulot, whose progress through the world in all of its follies was to occupy Tati for the remainder of his creative lifetime.