Once a year the sleepy french village of Saint-Severe wakes up when the carinval comes to town. The villagers amuse themselves with the festivities and the postman Francois watches a movie at a travelling show about the modern methods of the American postoffice. He rises to the challenge and wants to prove that he can deliver mail on his bike as fast as his motorised rivals in the USA...
There are not many actors and directors who were able to influence the movie world as much as Jacques Tati, who earned himself a permanent place in the olymp of the comedians right next to Charles Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd. Tati was, however, not nearly as busy as other filmmakers - he only made five feature-length movies and a handful shorts, but those were enough to make him immortal.
The Birth of a Comedian
It all began in France in the 1930s. Jacques Tatischeff was born on October 9th, 1909 as the son of russian-dutch-italian parents and had enjoyed a childhood in relative wealth with a good school education. His first real job was in his father's company, who was an art restorer and picture frame manufacturer, but in his youth Tati was also very much interested in sports. Tennis, rugby and boxing were among his favourites, which he pursued extensively and while doing so accidentially discovered his comedic talent. Friends, who were watching his hilarious sport pantomimes, suggested that he should take his performances to the stage.
In 1933 Tati appeared for the first time in a professional stage production and from then on practically lived on many varieté stages, cabarets and theaters in and around Paris and even on tour all around France and Italy. When his stage appearances became huge successes he began to get interested in the relatively new medium film, first appearing in 1934 in the movie On Demande un Brute showcasing his athletic talents. Later Gai Dimanche followed and finally in 1936 the short boxing pardy Soigne ton Gauche, which he had produced together with his friend René Clement.
War and Peace
World War II interrupted Jacques Tatis career just as he was on tour in Italy - he was drafted into the army, but he managed to survive the war unscathed. At the beginning of the German occupation of France he fled together with a friend, the writer Henri Marquet, to the unoccupied zone to avoid getting caught and being sent to Germany as a forced labourer. They hid in a farmhouse near the small village of Sainte-Severe-sur-Indre, which they got to know very well during their time there and whose population they learned to liked very much.
After the end of the war, Tati exclusively concentrated on his movie career and first appeared in small, straight roles in Sylvie et le Fantôme and Le Diable au Corps, directed by Claude Autant-Lara - but he really wanted to try the art of slapstick comedy. Fred Orain, who had already produced Tatis first big appearance in Soigne ton Gauche, was so thrilled about his performance that he wanted to make sure his protegé would have a future on the silver screen. Together with Tati he founded the production company Cady Films, which became the home of the two filmmakers for a long time.
When Jacques Tati and Henri Marquet were waiting for the end of the war in Sainte-Severe-sur-Indre, they had collected a lot of ideas for future film projects. They were especially taken with the rural village life, nearly unaffected by modern civilization, deciding that they wanted to immortalize the little town someday in a movie. A further inspiration was brought by Tatis previous short movie Soigne ton Gauche, which began with a fast, bike-riding postman - a character, which Tati had not yet played himself, but now wanted to make his own, devoting a whole short film to him.
Tati and Marquet returned to Sainte-Severe in 1946 with a camera team to shoot their first short film after the war. L'École des Facteurs was the title of the movie, which in a loving and witty way parodied the fight of a little village postman against modernization - exatcly the right subject for the athletic Jacques Tati, who was able to put his skills to good use. The film was made with a surprisingly large effort and some nifty technical tricks, but the picturesque scenery of Saint-Severe was also not neglected. But it had already become clear at this point that L'École des Facteurs was only the precursor to something even bigger.
The Carnival comes to Town
With a successful short movie on their resumé, Jacques Tati, Henri Marquet and Fred Orain managed to get solid financial backing for their next project. L'École des Facteurs had proven to be a huge hit and Jacques Tati was seen as a great hope for the french cinema, which had been in a deep crisis since the end of the war. Even with his stage career interrupted by the war, Tatis reputation was not damaged at all and after his first own short film the expectations were very high.
Tati had in fact planned L'École des Facteurs as a sort of test to gather experience and to find out if shooting in Saint-Severe was really practical. The villagers must have felt like in a carnival when Tati returned to the little town with an even bigger film team in 1947, to make a longer and more elaborate version of his short movie. He finally wanted to put his idea into practice, which he had conceived together with Henri Marquet during their earlier stay in Saint-Severe.
A Postman called Francois
Of course Jacques Tati wanted to work not only as a director, but also as an actor in his new movie and returned to the role he had already played in L'École des Facteurs: the ambitious postman, who now received the proud name of Francois. Originally only a small secondary character in Soigne ton Gauche, Tati was so taken by him that he had played the role himself in L'École des Facteurs and even planned to make him the trademark of his new movie - but without thrusting him completely into the foreground. Francois the postman at first glance seems like an homage to Charlie Chaplins little tramp, but he actually had only superficial similarities to him and other famous slapstick figures.
Tatis inspirations are clearly recognizeable, but nevertheless he had created a totally original role for himself. It is the only really active character of the movie, who is driving the nearly non-existent plot, although he only becomes the main protagonist in the middle of the story. Tati had mainly used local people for his secondary cast when he made L'École des Facteurs, but now he was able to afford professional actors like Guy Decomble and Paul Frankeur for some of the more important roles, but at the same time he was also able to convince many of the villagers of Sainte-Severe to appear in his movie.
Tati, the Observer
Jour de Fête does not have a fully grown plot, a characteristic the movie shares with many of Tatis later works. The storyline is told loosely in a lazy, quiet way, interwoven with many small tales connected with each other, which recount the arrival of the traveling showmen, the setting up of the carnival and its impact on the town life. Tati is watching with his camera like through the eyes of a passer-by, who is sometimes represented by a character in the movie: an old woman wandering through some of the shots, commenting on the happenings in an old-fashioned humerous way.
Tatis humour is much more subtle than most of his slapstick roots, because the jokes are not presented to the audience on a silver platter. Instead they have to be discovered and closely observed to understand them - Jour de Fête is a movie which has to be watched with attention. A real plot only develops in the last half of the movie, when Francois the postman is being encouraged by his American rivals to do his job faster and more efficent. This part of Jour de Fête is essentially a much more elaborate remake of L'École des Facteurs with something that can be called an action finale, filmed with many technical tricks.
The Color Experiment
Before the production of Jour de Fête had begun Jacques Tati had gotten a tempting offer: the film manufacturer Thomson proposed to let Tati shoot his movie as the first colour production in French movie history with their experimental Thomsoncolor process. In the USA and in England color film had been in use for nearly a decade, but because of the war the technology had not made it all the way to France and in the post-war period Technicolor film was still much too expensive for many French filmmakers. It was also hard to get and to use, because the only european lab being able to develop Technicolor film was located in England.
For Jacques Tati it was a fascinating possibility to try an affordable colour system, but at the same time he did not fully trust the new technology and was able to persuade his producer Fred Orain that the additional costs to shoot the movie simultaneously in black-and-white would not be wasted. So during the production of the movie there were always two cameras standing next to each other, one loaded with black-and-white stock and the other with the experimental Thomsoncolor film. Tati accepted that there would be differences between both versions and while some scenes were shot seperately for both cameras, he did not favour one of them and made sure everything was filmed on both film stocks.
Tati went to great lengths to use the possibilities of the colour movie process and designed a simple, but distinct colour scheme, which emphasized the difference between the normal village life and the colourful carnival. But like his sceptical postman Tati was also proven right with his doubts about the modern technology: during the filming it was found out that the developing of the color negative worked, but making a positive print from it was impossible. Tati was very disappointed, but also glad that his movie was not lost thanks to the simultaneously shot black-and-white material.
Tatis World of Sound
While Jacques Tatis movies have sometimes been compared to the great silent comedies of the 1920s, the filmmaker had often experimented with music, sound and voices and always equipped his movies with elaborate and complex soundtracks. As his first feature film, Jour de Fête had not yet evolved very much in that respect, but was very creative nevertheless. The music, composed by Jean Yatove, who had also worked on Soigne ton Gauche and L'École des Facteurs, sounds rather rural, traditional and very French, but there were already some jazzy melodies added in some of the more active scenes.
Apart from the music the soundtrack consisted of a fascinating soundscape, in which the often only barely understandable voices and sounds are mixed deeply into another to form a single unit. Much dialogue can be heard, but it is only recognizable as comprehendable speech when it is essential to the plot. The rest is part of a very natural ambient noise, which perfectly fits to the observing nature of the movie and does not seem intrusive at all.
A Successful Failure
When Jacques Tati had completed the shooting of Jour de Fête in November of 1947, the future of the movie was still uncertain. The unusable colour negative was not the only problem, also the film did not have a distributor yet. Only after many private screenings and a preview in a suburb of Paris Tati was able to find a company willing to release Jour de Fête all over France. After a successful premiere in Paris in May 1949 and very positive responses of the critics, that summer the movie was nominated for the golden lion at the Venice film festival - a high honour, but Tati lost to his fellow countryman Henri-Georges Clouzot.
Despite its problems, Jour de Fête was able to become a huge success and at the end of 1949, the movie was not only shown in France, but also in cinemas all over Europe - even in Germany, where it was released under the somewhat misleading title Das Schützenfest (The Marksmen's Festival - there is no shooting competition in the movie). The audiences had never seen anything like it before and Tatis individual style was justly hailed as a completely new discovery. Even before Tati had started to work on a new movie, his reputation as a brillant director had traveled all around the world.
The three Lives of Jour de Fête
For Jacques Tati the evolution of his first feature film had not finished after 1949. Because he had not been able to find a method to rescue the color version of his movie, he returned to Saint-Severe in 1964 to shoot a few additional scenes, in which a painter travels through the village making colourful drawings of some of the most distinctive scenes. In addition Tati laboriously hand-coloured some parts of the movie to achieve at least some of his originally conceived colour compositions. Also the music, sound and dlalogue were completely, but faithfully recreated with the modern magnetic recording technology, replacing the earlier optical soundtrack.
For over thirty years, this 1964 incarnation of Jour de Fête was the only one shown. It was Jacques Tatis final version, who died in 1982, having no idea that there would be a third version of Jour de Fête someday. In 1988 the french film lab Eurocitel managed to crack the Thomsoncolor process and for the first time there was a real chance of making colour prints of Jour de Fête. Tatis daughter Sophie, who had been born during the making of the movie, took care of getting a decent budget to transform the vision of her father into reality. In 1995 the time had come - the colour version of Jour de Fête was ready. At first it was shown only in France, but soon it spread through arthouse cinemas all over the world and was also broadcast on television in many countries.
It was, however, not simply a colourized version, but a completely different movie. During the restoration effort it was noticed that while Tati had placed both cameras next to each other, he had sometimes shot totally different takes on the colour stock from very different angles. There were also some short sequences on the colour negative which were missing in the black-and-white version. With the help of Jacques Tati's own production records, the movie was completely new assembled and only very few sequences had to be digitally colourized from the black-and-white version, due too much damage on the colour negative. It was not a Technicolor wonder, but the muted and deliberately somewhat pale colours matched the nostalgic atmosphere of the movie perfectly and gave it a completely new life.
Tatis First Masterpiece
Sixty years after its making Jour de Fête has not lost any of its fascination. Jacques Tatis unique view into the microcosm of a small french village and the fight of a postman against the modern methods of his american competition is equally a contemporary document and a classic which has aged very well - especially after the long-lost colour version had been reconstructed almost fifty years after the premiere.
For a long time, Jacques Tati's Jour de Fête was very hard to find on DVD. The french DVD, released in 1999, contains both the 1964 version and the later colour reconstruction together with a documentary about the restoration - but this DVD has been out of print for a long time. Other releases like the finnish disc also had both versions of the movie, but were very hard to get. The british release included only the colour version and for years there have been rumours of an American Criterion disc, which has never been officially announced.
In 2004 a collection of four Jaccques Tati movies were released on DVD first in Switzerland and then in Germany, but especially Jour de Fête had quickly proved to be a disappointment, because only the colour version was included, using an old video master from the 1990s. This unsatisfactory in-between-solution was made redundant by an amazing new release from the British Film Institute in 2012, which contains on both DVD and Blu-Ray a much better transfer of the colour reconstruction, the hand-tinted black-and-white version and three of Tatis most important short films as extras.
The disc reviewed in this article is the DVD from BFI's October 2012 dual-format-edition. Both incarnations of the movie are included: the partly hand-colourized version from 1964 in an international print with an english voiceover and the 1995 restoration of the colour version, even including the short introduction. Tatis black-and-white original from 1949 is not included for unknown reasons, presumably this version is either lost or not wanted by the Tati estate.
The new HD transfers were not completely digitally restored, but especially the colour version still looks sensationally better. The bonus material, only available on the DVD and not the Blu-Ray, consists of Tati's three short films Soigne ton Gauche, L'Ecole des Facteurs and Cours du Soir. Included is also a nice 12-page booklet. The BFI could not have done better with this release, even on DVD this is easily the best version of Jour de Fête available now.
For the new release of
Jour de Fête the BFI has produced completely new HD transfers of the 1995 colour reconstruction and the 1964 hand-tinted black-and-white version, which have not been fully restored and still contain a lot of imperfections from the film sources. These new transfers are, however, still a huge improvement over the earlier video masters. Both versions are properly encoded in 4:3 and the authoring is excellent without any compression problems, despite an unusually low bitrate. See also the transfer comparison between the old DVD and the two new transfers.
The new transfer of the colour version was based on an interpositive of the colour reconstruction from 1995, which was supplied to the BFI by the Tati estate. The image is surprisingly stable, the weaving and fluttering of the earlier transfers has been completely eliminated. Because no additional digital cleanup was done, there are still small scratches, some dirt and the occasional larger damage visible, but these are exactly the same as on the earlier versions - only now they are more visible due to the more modern transfer technology.
At first glance, sharpness seems a little inferior than on the old video master, but that was massively electronically oversharpened, something which has not been done with the new version. Nevertheless detail is much better and although it varies from scene to scene, it is more than acceptable for a film this age. Film grain has not been filtered out and is more or less distinctly visible without being distracting.
The new transfer finally does justice to the restored colours, which were previously nearly washed out by a much too bright image. Instead of overblown whites and crushing blacks the more pastel-like colours of the Thomsoncolor process are shown, which reproduce Tatis distinct colour timing with the contrast between the green-brownish nature and the more colourful carnival really well - especially skin tones are now much more natural. The colours are not always completely stable, but there are no massive fluctuations. Brightness and contrast are better balanced and even in the dark scenes show more detail now. Brightness flicker, sometimes a problem with movies of this age, apperars only occasionally. On the Blu-Ray there are supposedly some scenes with noticeable vertical lines from the lenticular Thomsoncolor process, but on the DVD this cannot be seen due to the lower resolution.
The black-and-white version is actually the partly hand-coloured incarnation from 1964, which is based on the 1949 original and contains some newly shot material, hence the slightly longer runtime. The BFI has produced a new HD transfer of an english-language print from their own film archive, which was unfortunately not in the same good shape as the colour version. Dirt and damage are much more noticeable and even reel change markers regularly appear. The image is not particularly stable, jerking around most of the time, especially around the splices. Sharpness is somewhat better than on the colour version and film grain is distinctly visible. The scenes shot in the 1960s look a bit cleaner and more detailed than the 1949 material. Overall, because of the not too good condition of the film print used for the transfer, this version of Jour de Fête is not able to compete visually with the wonderful colour reconstruction by a long shot.