When critics discuss Jacques Tati, they usually focus on his legendary mild mannered character M. Hulot, his unusual comedic style or his themes of progress at the expense of culture. A unique skill of Tati almost no one talks about is his ability to capture the feel of community. In his movies, Tati takes a small group of characters to a particular location, where he provides equal focus on each character to showcase their unique personality. Through this technique, he celebrates how people can find a sense of community even amongst complete strangers. But before he did that, he started with the bonds of a farming town, where everyone knows each other by heart. The result is Jour De Fete, Tati’s feature length film debut as writer, director and star.
Jour de Fete is based on L’ecole des Facteurs, Tati’s short film centered on the day in the life of bumbling postman Francois (Tati). Francois (played again by Tati) serves as the main source of mail deliver in the village of Saint-Severe-Sur-Indre. In contrast to the mild-mannered M. Hulot, Tati’s Francois is a cantankerous fussbudget. He takes himself too seriously for his own good, often trying to present himself as a social better. But his bumbling nature gives him away, often crashing his bike into the pub. Some villagers seize every opportunity to get him wasted, when he can finally loosen up and have a good time. There are moments when he’s helpful like when he assists a cross eyed man with hammering the right nails, but for the most part, he’s either losing his bike or riding into the local pub.
Francois finds his routine existence upset when a travelling carnival comes to town with a merry go round and a mini theatre. While the rest of the village spends the day either enjoying the carnival or getting drunk at the pub, Francois keeps to his route. But then the makeshift theatre shows a newsreel about American Postmen, showcasing how “progressive” they are. The film spooks Francois, who is irritated that his postal services can’t even get his bike tire fixed. The next day, he is determined to prove himself to his fellow villagers while they cheer him on. Hijinks ensue.
Though Francois is the lead character, the true centre of the film is the old lady who always has a goat on a leash. Serving as an indirect tour guide, this lady goes from one house to another and offers us details of each local folk’s daily routines. This lady works both for and against the movie. The actress portrays the goat lady as a woman who’s amused by the joys of everyday life. While everyone is hung-over after a night of partying, she’s the only one out on the streets, chuckling in good natured glee. I suspect Tati feels a connection with Goat lady for his films share that same amusement towards everyday routines and the small things that disrupt it.
Despite seeming like an entertaining person to have around, her dialogue is so awkward in delivery that it’s grating. It’s painfully obvious her dialogue is an attempt at exposition and it always comes off as artificial. She tries very hard to make it sound natural, but it’s impossible with dialogue this phony. And it’s strange because everyone else’s dialogue sound believable. The film certainly has more focus on the dialogue than his later films, so I assume there was some self-consciousness about getting more information out there for the audience. In the later films, he would develop the confidence to just do away with explanation and let the character speak for themselves. Fortunately, the only time she sounds natural is when she offers some wisdom for Francois near the end of the film.
But this film isn’t so much about Francois as it is about the whole village. Francois doesn’t even show up until 13 minutes into the film. Tati prefers to take that time to get to get to know the village. Saint-Severe-Sur-Indre is a village where everyone travels by bike or by horse carriage, people ride past farm animals who take over the dirt roads and everyone knows each other to a tee. When the carnival comes to town, the mayor is there in casual clothes with open arms and the villagers are there to help set up. And its right here where you realize this isn’t so much a comedy about a clumsy mailman as it is a celebration of community. Through this film, Tati celebrates the places where daily life would stop so that everyone could have a day of celebration. He raises a glass for the small towns where everyone stops at one pub for a round of drinks. He even regards the return to daily life with grateful content. We’d have to wait until Fellini’s Amarcord to find such a warm and inviting celebration of village life as Jour De Fete.
There are 3 versions of the film. There’s the original 1949 black and white release. There’s the 1995 version shot with a color camera found by Tati’s daughter Sophie Tatischeff. To be honest, the color feels too faded to make any difference. And then there’s the 1964 version, which is the one I like the most. Even though it’s 7 minutes shorter, it introduces the supporting character of an artist who comes to town along with the villagers. He starts drawing the village and people who live in it. But when he paints flag of France, we see red, white and blue on his canvas. And then we start seeing color from various objects, from the flag to the balloons. The colors were hand painted by artist Paul Grimault. The addiction of colors in black and white imagery is downright impressive, especially with the waving flag. Plus, it works on an artistic level to fit with Tati’s theme of strangers having an impact on a location and people in it. And in the end of the film, the Artist goes on his way, looking for another city to bring colour into.
All three versions are in the Criterion Collection DVD.
 If you’ve seen this short film, you’ve already seen the climax of the film. With the exception of the ending, the last third of the film follows the short film scene for scene. Don’t let it stop you from seeing the first two thirds because the film’s still worth watching.