Jacques Tati: Jour de Fête

Review of The Criterion Collection Blu-ray edition.
Spine: #730
Release Date: October 28, 2014 (Part of The Complete Jacques Tati box set)
Screen captures below are taken from The Criterion Collection Blu-ray disc, but resolution has been reduced from 1920x1080 to 900x506 and slightly compressed. You may click on them to view the 900x506 image.

I had never seen Jour de Fête (1949), Jacques Tati’s debut feature. I popped it in while my two youngest — a six-year-old and a three-year-old — were playing in the same room. I was as proud as could be when the youngest pulled up a stool and sat down to watch a black and white film with no animation. The six-year-old soon joined us, and together we laughed as Tati’s postman kept finding himself in the worst situations — ones he usually created for himself. The film is in French with subtitles, and yet each son knew pretty much everything that was going on because of Tati’s visual flare, which will only get better. When we finished, they asked if we could please watch the last ten minutes again. I was as excited to re-watch as they were.

Jour de Fete

When the film opens, we see a tractor pulling a cart along a small road to a provincial French town. Sticking out of the back of the cart are a bunch of carousel horses. It’s carnival day. And even if the carnival doesn’t provide everyone a brief respite from work (most of these people still have to farm or, notably, deliver the mail) then it at least provides a welcome bit of communal festivity, not to mention a glimpse at the world outside.

Tati goes to great lengths to establish this small community. We see the barber and his patrons, we wonder along with the café owner just how long the new paint on his chairs will take to dry, we watch people work in the fields. All in all, this is a community filled with people working their trades, dependent upon one another for the little things in life, and it appears to be a pleasant way of life.

It actually isn’t until fifteen minutes have passed when the star protagonist, postman François (played by Tati himself) shows up on his bike, swerving through a herd of cattle and then swatting at a bee that will continue to be a nuisance throughout in later scenes. It’s an energetic entrance onto the feature-film stage by one of its greatest comic performers.

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His comedy will tighten considerably over the course of his subsequent work. Indeed, I kept waiting for the set pieces to get longer, more elaborate, winding up until all elements burst at once. But while many of the jokes build slowly through the film, mostly this is a film where life doesn’t stop for an elaborate set piece. Even the initial set piece, where François helps raise the flag pole, plays through at a gentle pace and we’re soon involved in other affairs (though François will bring up his nearly deadly pop on the head again and again, to my delight).

To me, the pace made sense. This is a postman — easily distracted, to be sure — who has a job to do in a small town where people are grateful for the light diversion. He must make some effort to deliver the mail, but it’s not life or death. He delivers one telegram that is partially eaten by a goat. He and the recipient quickly carry on with other things. Another townsman, when receiving a telegram from a distracted François says, “This telegram isn’t for me.” François’s response: “Well then, I’ve got nothing for you. I’m busy.” It’s not efficient, to be sure, and he’s often a danger to himself, which is why everyone has a good time at his expense.

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Things are about to change, however. At the carnival, François watches a short film about the American postal service. There, he sees, postmen are essentially daredevils, dropping from helicopters, driving their motorcycles through flaming rings. And the kicker, every year Oklahoma holds a Mr. Apollo contest, featuring the buff postmen.

Suddenly, François is very self-conscious about his lackluster deliveries. At the encouragement of the carnies, who can’t wait to see where this goes, he begins his attempt to handle the mail the American way. It all resolves pleasantly, with a nice critique against the fast-paced that even my six-year-old understood: “Now he doesn’t want to go fast anymore, right?” And, as I mentioned, we all had a wonderful time.

Jour de fête may be a debut feature, and relative to Tati’s later work it shows itself as a bit of a freshman effort, but it’s still remarkably well done, a wonderful precursor to Mr. Hulot’s own confrontations with modern life.


Supplements:

The disc for Jour de fête is loaded, but some of the supplements are ripe for criticism.

Criterion makes the original 1949 black-and-white release the principal feature, but also includes the 1964 version of the film in which Tati inserted some color. For example, while much of the image is still the black-and-white we see in the 1949 version, some flags might be colored in. Besides color, the 1964 version also inserts a new character, a painter who pops up here and there around town, taking account of this special day. This version is in pretty rough shape and appears to be just an up-scaled standard-definition transfer. I still enjoyed it, but it doesn’t look pretty.

But that’s not the only alternative version of the film. When originally filming Jour de fête, Tati was pioneering the Thomson-Color process, a kind of Technicolor technique that didn’t really work. Fortunately, Tati was also filming in black-and-white as a back-up, and that version became the original release. In 1995, the Thomson-Color version was restored (to some degree), and that is also presented here. Honestly, it looks even more terrible than the 1964 version.

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High-definition has truly spoiled me, and I merely skimmed through this one, where the color blurs. There are better transfers of this version of the film out there, and there are a few theories as to why Criterion’s edition has this inferior transfer. As it stands, though, the 1964 and 1995 versions are positioned as curiosities rather than features of their own.

It should be noted that the 1949 version also has some rough spots that cannot be fully related to the film elements. The second still in the main post above is one of several interior scenes that contain an annoying degree of pixilation. I’m thrilled we have all of this, but it’s a shame that, for whatever reason, we weren’t given the best that’s available.

The disc also includes Jour de fête: The Search for the Lost Color, a thirty-minute episode from 1988 of the French television show Cinéma cinema. I really enjoyed this look into the history of the search for and ultimate restoration of the Thomson-color version of the film, along with a great look at the doomed Thomson-color process itself. It’s fascinating to see a bit of filmmaking technology that simply did not work, especially as I tend to hear about the ones that did work and that revolutionized cinema. This is an excellent supplement.

Lastly, other than a really strange trailer that positions the film as a response to the audience’s desire to escape films about death and destruction, is a long (it’s 81-minutes!) video essay by Tati expert Stéphan Goudet (whom we’ll hear from throughout the Criterion box-set). This feature spends a great deal of time — and I found it welcome — showing how Tati developed from his short film L’école des facteurs (which is included in this set, and which includes François, the postman) to Jour de fête, where he used some of the same gags, but with improvements. It also looks at other aspects of the production and places it in the context of the French filmmaking industry. It’s the kind of feature I love, especially when, as here, I’m relatively new to a filmmaker and era or region of filmmaking.

A strong start to The Complete Jacques Tati, which, I have no doubt, will be my own personal release of the year.

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