September 12, 2017
After a decade-long career as a music-hall performer, Jacques Tati transitioned to feature filmmaking witha comedy about a remarkably gullible postman. Before Tati invented the iconic bumbling bourgeois Hulot (in M. Hulot’s Holiday, 1953), he experimented with a clumsy working class letter carrier, prone to insecure bouts of drinking and falling flat on his face. Jour de fête (1949) exhibits Tati’s elastic expertise at mime, including a tour-de-force drunk bike ride, as well as displaying his immediate talents as a director, constructing brilliantly funny gags through choreography and sound design. All of the gags generate from a small town’s resistance to and obsession with technological advancement, especially as trumpeted by the Americans. Tati eyes all this talk of modernization with a gimlet eye, preferring instead to linger on the absurdities of small town life before they disappear forever.
Having made a name for himself on the music hall circuit, Tati made his way into short films, and gained some notoriety under René Clément, who directed him in the boxing comedy Soigne ton gauche (1936, for which Godard punned on the title for his Keep Your Right Up/Soigne ta droite). It was in this short that Tati took note of the bicycle riding postman played by Max Martel. This character would be the inspiration for his 1947 script The School For Postmen (1947), though in the interim he would be trying to avoid the German occupation government forces, who were seeking him out to work in Berlin for the Nazi organization “Strength Through Joy” as part of the compulsory work service. Instead he ditched them and hid out in the middle of the country in Le Marembert, four miles from Sainte-Sévère, which would be the location of Jour de fête. Tati and his friend Henri Marquet (a co-writer/actor in Jour de fête) chose Le Marembert as a town to hide out in because, Tati’s daughter explains in the documentary A L’Americaine (also on FilmStruck as a supplement to Jour de fête), “They jabbed a pencil into a map of France, Sainte-Sévère is smack in the middle.”
Tati himself continued that “once there, I was surprised. It was wartime, but in Sainte-Sévère, you’d never have known it. It’s fantastic to see people who know how to live. I thought if I made a film one day, I’d shoot it there.” He would stay true to his word, and retained the image of Max Martel’s postman. This would lead to the 1947 short The School For Postmen, a trial run for Jour de fête, in which his bicycling letter carrier is obsessed with proving that he can deliver the mail as fast as modern American technology allows. Originally slated to be directed by René Clément, his dropping out allowed Tati the opportunity to get behind the camera. And it was this experience that led him to believe he could extend this character out to feature length. He shot from May to December of 1947 in Sainte-Sévère, using it as his outdoor set. It was to be shot in a new color process called Thomsoncolor, but it was unstable and acceptable prints could not be struck. So it was distributed in B&W and that is how it is widely known today. However, in 1964 Tati did a re-edit with some painted in color by his friend Paul Grimault, and in 1994 a full color version was struck from the original negatives. All three versions are available to view on FilmStruck.
The story, such as it is, involves the fair coming into to Sainte-Sévère and upsetting the natural tempo of the town. The café owner starts re-painting all his tables and chairs, a tad upsetting to his newly stained patrons, while one of the carnies flirts with one of the local girls. Through these side stories stumbles the insecure postman François (Tati), who endures spitballs from the local kids and endless gibes and pranks from the adults, mostly egging him into drinking games. Too eager to please to ever really object or fight back, he instead complains softly to himself. His track through town becomes an obstacle course of townspeople, carnies and kids all trying to distract him or rile him up, and he either ends up blackout drunk in a train car or roped into helping out someone else with their work (setting up a flagpole, cleaning up farmland, fixing a player piano). These are all intricately arranged set pieces that choreograph a whole village in motion (while the camera remains fairly static). The movement in the frame is never ending, and Tati is ever-eager to cede the frame to a better punchline, whether it’s the cross-eyed spike-driver (he needs to be positioned just a bit to the side) or the hunchbacked old gossip who fills in the details of every nook and cranny of the neighborhood; this 90 minutes feature somehow maps the whole town while also finding time to sketch each individual personality.
What François values above all is his job, so when he views a newsreel of all the new U.S. postal delivery technology, from helicopter drops to automated sorting machines, he blows a gasket and tries to prove he can match the Americans’ speed with his own two-wheeler. What ensues is nothing less than a Buster Keaton-esque study in human transportation gone awry, like in Sherlock Jr. (1924) when he loses his driver and rides a motorcycle side-saddle to a series of death-defying near misses. In Tati’s case he just loses his bicycle, which starts riding down the road on its own, as if possessed by a demon. Tati chases it down as if his life depended on it because his reputation hinges upon this mere mode of transportation. His bike goes through all forms of indignities – losing wheels, getting caught on a railroad crossing gate, getting dunked in a river. But it’s all for the greater good (or so François believes), of delivering the mail with speed, “American-style,” he keeps saying. So he is sticking the mail in grain sorters, shoving it on a butcher’s cutting board (which swiftly gets chopped), and sticking it under a horse’s tail. No time for customer service, as long as the mail gets delivered, no matter the condition, he will be satisfied. That is, until he can move no more, and the old hunchback drags him out of the water and tells him, “News is rarely good, so let it take its sweet time.”
Tati prefers the town stay as it is. But his depiction is already old-fashioned, as these towns became more mechanized, less personable. And so he had found a theme that would carry him through the films to follow, though he would need a new character, one more upwardly mobile to explore the ever dehumanized city, if not less prone to pratfalls. So Monsieur Hulot was born: the latest, and certainly the most oblivious cog in the industrial machine.