Today: June 21, 2024

Jour de Fete

Having left the Paris cabaret circuit under a cloud of scandal,

Having left the Paris cabaret circuit under a cloud of scandal, Jacques Tati retreated to a village in
the French heartland where he and long-time collaborator Henri Marquet worked on a script for a short film entitled “L’Ecole des Facteurs”. This film
showcased Tati’s talents as a physical comedian and allowed him to secure
funding for his first feature film Jour
de Fete

Set in the small French village, to
which Tati exiled himself during the German occupation, Jour de Fete opens with
the image of a wooden horse on the back of a motorised cart. This juxtaposition
of childhood memorabilia and clumsy mechanisation sets the tone for a film
chronicling one man’s disastrous attempts to emulate American efficiency. The man in question is Francois (Tati),
a hapless postman who allows himself to be endlessly distracted from his job of
delivering letters. One minute he’s delivering the mail, the next he’s
attempting to erect a flagpole in the town square, then he’s delivering letters
again and then he’s getting drunk in a café on the square. When Francois sees a
ludicrous propaganda film featuring American postmen delivering the mail via
motorbike and helicopter, he attempts to clean up his act and take his job
seriously but the harder Francois tries to be efficient, the more drunken and
absurd his actions become.

Like many of Tati’s films, Jour de
Fete functions primarily as a piece of social satire. A brilliant observer of
social mores, Tati captures what it was like to live in small-town France in
the 1940s and reproduces that experience on screen as an intriguing mixture of
sentiment and wry detachment. While Tati’s later films relied chiefly upon
visual techniques to carry the story, Jour de Fete features an elderly woman
with a goat (Delcassan) who both narrates
the story and provides cutting editorial commentary. Through the eyes of the
old woman, small town France is revealed as a place filled with passion and
envy as young girls fall for carnival workers and everyone tries to look more
important than they actually are.
In the hands of a less nostalgic director, this social expose would have
seemed cruel and sneering but the elderly woman’s detachment from village life
drains the specifics from the village leaving only a warm afterglow of flawed

Wry social commentary aside, the
bulk of the film is given over to Tati’s extraordinary gifts as a physical
comedian. Equal parts Charlie Chaplin
and Jackie Chan, his pratfalls and
stunts are dazzling, inventive and even funny if you like that sort of gentle
slapstick humour. Jour de Fete is often spoken of as a treatise against
American-style modernisation and while it is easy to see that Tati is
attempting to satirise the ludicrous idea of an efficient French postal service,
the satire is so broad that it fails to gain much traction on the world.
Indeed, the best joke in the entire film is the idea that American postmen are
so fast and efficient that they train for their jobs by jumping through flaming
hoops on motorbikes. However, as beautiful as this idea may be, its absurdity completely
overcooks the gag and boils away the film’s satirical edge leaving only a
whimsical residue. The point of satire is to mock things that actually exist
but surely even the most zealous of corporate reformers would allow postmen to
get off their bikes when delivering letters. By presenting the desire for
economic modernisation in such ludicrous terms, Tati’s satire fails to connect
with anything real.

As charming and beautifully
directed as Jour de Fete may be, it is a film too broad to be either genuinely
funny or pointedly satirical. Its
ode to rural French life, though well-observed and heart-felt is nostalgic to
the point of being reactionary and none of its jokes do more than raise a
smile. Re-released in a dual-format package including a booklet and a number of
short films, Jour de Fete is a technical masterpiece too clogged with sentiment
to be genuinely human.

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