powered by AFI
The first feature film directed by and starring influential French comedian Jacques Tati, Jour de fête (Holiday, 1949) possesses the same droll comedy, gentle humanism, clever sight gags, and relaxed pace that would become the legendary director's hallmark.
Jour de fête (which translates as "Day of the Festival"), observes the goings-on of a rural French community when it is invaded by a meager traveling carnival. Among the town's most colorful residents is an overzealous postman, Francois (Tati), a well-intentioned civil servant whose ambitions seem to outweigh his abilities. He helps a cross-eyed laborer pound a stake, wrestles with an unstable flagpole, and engages in a drinking contest, occasionally pausing to boast of his accomplishments.
When Francois watches a newsreel at the traveling cinema, he is inspired to update his methods and take a more aggressive approach to letter-carrying, which sets in motion a prolonged slapstick sequence in which the bicycling postman speeds in and out of a variety of hilarious situations.
Jour de fête was an expanded version of an eighteen-minute film Tati had made shortly after World War II. L'École des facteurs (School for Postmen ) features many of the same gags that would later appear in Jour de fête, with little variation.
Tati mounted the production with the help of producer Fred Orain, who raised approximately $30,000 from two investors. In remaking L'École de facteurs, Tati returned to the location that had inspired the film: Sainte-Severe. A soldier in the French army, Tati had lived in Sainte-Severe during the latter years of World War II, avoiding Nazi persecution during the German occupation of Paris.
Jour de fête established a pattern Tati followed throughout his career: using non-professionals instead of established actors, including the town priest and the owner of the local hotel. Not every cast member was enthralled by the idea of a film being shot in their humble hamlet. "The cinema's all very well," said Saint-Severien Marie Villatte, "but when there are five of you at home, and cooking to be done, and mending, and what's more, three cows, two sows, hens and ducks to be looked after, there's not much time for larking about."
In spite of the apparent simplicity of his films, Tati was a visual innovator. He planned for Jour de fête to be the first French feature film to be shot and released in color. He employed the experimental Thomson-Color system, the results of which were difficult to predict. To cover himself in the event of technological snafus, Tati also shot the film in black and white. This proved to be a wise decision since Tati was dissatisfied with the quality of the color release prints and released the film in black and white instead.
What makes Tati's technical ambitions more impressive is that he carried them out on a low budget, at a time when even the basic necessities of filmmaking were hard to come by. "In those immediate post-war years film stock was scarce and often of poor quality," says James Harding in the book Jacques Tati: Frame by Frame, "The electricity supply frequently broke down. His equipment was extremely modest. Despite these handicaps, the four months that Jour de fête took to make were months of gaiety and enthusiasm, not least on part of the Saint-Severiens, or Follainvilliens as they were known in the film."
Tati's set was as relaxed as the world he was depicting, yet when it came to choreographing each shot, he was very exacting. He reportedly rehearsed one simple scene no less than twenty times before he allowed the cameras to turn on it. The primary reason for such precision was no doubt the limited quantity of film stock he had to work with -- especially the Thomson-Color stock.
Upon the completion of Jour de fête, a special screening was held in Saint-Severe, preceded by a parade through the village led by Tati, producer Orain and the town's mayor, Pierre Nauron. As part of the festivities, the townspeople dedicated a plaster bust of Francois the postman. According to Harding, "It was the handiwork of M. Pigois, owner of the Hotel de l'Ecu de France, and his brother. Beneath it ran the legend 'J. Tati. Born 7.10.1907. Immortal.' Though they had given the day and year of his birth wrongly, it was a charming thought." Tati was actually born October 9, 1907 (9.10.1907).
Years later, a street was dedicated to the cherished filmmaker in Sainte-Severe: rue Jacques Tati.
In addition to being a technical innovator, Tati was an incurable tinker. Throughout his career, Tati would modify his films for re-release. After initial screenings of Jour de fête, he shot a few additional scenes, including one in which Francois bursts into a man's house to make a delivery. Seeing the man is dressed in black, he voices his enthusiasm for the festival (assuming this is the reason for his formal attire). Then Francois exits and the door closes to reveal a corpse lying in state.
Perhaps to pursue a broader audience for the film (especially children), a version with an English-language soundtrack (narrated by Jacques Pills) was created in the 1950s, so that the subtitles could be removed. It is believed that Tati was involved in the creation of this export edition.
Still not satisfied with this original release version of Jour de fête, Tati shot new material and re-edited the film for a 1964 theatrical re-release (and added some jazzy new instrumentation to the sound mix). Determined that his provincial comedy should have some splashes of color, he employed the Scopochrome Lax system to strategically colorize his film. Tati introduces this idea within the film by showing an artist painting a picture of the town. As his brushes touch paper, small details of the town -- a flag, a banner, the decorations on a carousel -- suddenly appear in color. In some of these shots, portions of the frame were hand-colored (in a style reminiscent of the Path color stencil process of the silent era). In other instances, color elements, such as a string of pennants, were optically superimposed over the black-and-white image. It is this 80-minute, subtitled, partially color-tinted version of Jour de fête that will be shown on Turner Classic Movies.
In 1995, the virtually unseen Thomson-Color version was restored, through the efforts of Tati's daughter, Sophia Tatischeff (who had been an infant at the time of the film's completion). Thirty years after the making of Jour de fête, Tatischeff revisited Sainte-Severe with a film crew to shoot a documentary on the making of the film.
At the 1949 Venice Film Festival, Jour de fête was nominated for the Golden Lion Award, but lost to Henri-Georges Clouzot's Manon (1949). While audiences loved Tati's good-natured comedy, many critics were taken aback by its humble aspirations. When it opened in New York at the 55th Street Playhouse on February 19, 1952, The New York Times wrote, "Since the French movie men have acquired an honest reputation for suave comedy, it must be explained that they may upset all previous conceptions with Jour de fête, which makes a completely unseemly bid for the mantle of Mack Sennett."
Time Magazine picked up on Tati's inspiration, calling his character, "a sad-faced, gangling, rural postman who looks like a cross between General Charles De Gaulle and old-time silent comic Charley Chase."
Buster Keaton was proud of Tati's efforts, and remarked, "Tati carries on from the point where we left off some forty years ago."
Less evident to many critics is the influence upon Tati of the proletarian dramas of Marcel Pagnol (Fanny ), especially apparent in Jour de fête.
Comparing Tati to the slapstick giants of the 1920s was more fitting than is at first apparent. In the tradition of the comedy pioneers, Tati's film is more than a series of jokes. Just as Keaton's The General (1927) is a historically-detailed adventure film, and Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times (1936) is a commentary on the post-industrial age, Jour de fête offers an almost documentary-like depiction of life in a rural town in postwar France (enhanced by actual locations and non-professional actors).
In the course of raising funds for another feature, Tati was offered the opportunity to direct a sequel to Jour de fête. In his book The Films of Jacques Tati, Brent Maddock writes, "It was suggested that Francois get married in a film to be called Le Facteur se mari (The Postman Gets Married) or that he go to Paris in Le Facteur a Paris." But Tati was a filmmaker always looking ahead, and tried to make each film significantly more ambitious than the last. Jour de fête was a critical and popular success, but Tati had no interest in remaining in Sainte-Severe. He believed that greater accomplishments lay ahead on a different path.
And he was right.
Producers: Fred Orain, Andre Paulve
Director: Jacques Tati
Screenplay: Jacques Tati, Henri Marquet, Rene Wheeler
Cinematography: Jacques Mercanton, Jacques Sauvageot
Music: Jean Yatove
Film Editing: Marcel Morreau
Cast: Guy Decomble (Roger), Jacques Tati (Franois, the postman), Paul Frankeur (Marcel), Santa Relli (Roger's wife), Maine Vallee (Jeannette), Delcassan (The tattler), Roger Rafal (The hair-dresser).
by Bret Wood