Jacques Tati followed one of the normal paths towards feature film directing: through short films. He wrote, starred in, and eventually directed a handful of shorts, culminating in his directorial debut of “School for Postmen” with Tati playing a smalltown French postman named Francois who rapidly moves through his small town to deliver the mail with his own personal flair. When he got his chance to make his feature film directorial debut, he seems to have simply decided to expand on the ideas from “School for Postmen” to the point where Jour de Fete‘s finale is a repeat of the short film to the point where Tati reused somewhere around a dozen shots from the short. However, the issue is that, like some other directors who rose up through the short film path, Tati didn’t quite know how to build a feature length film, so his feature film debut ends up feeling like a series of shorts stitched together until he reached 87 minutes.
In a sleepy little French town, a carnival arrives one morning, greeted by the mayor, and gets ready to set up for the day’s celebration. Marcel (Paul Frankeur) and Roger (Guy Decomble) begin unpacking and roping in the locals to help set up the central pole that should stand up in the center of the town square. This section is essentially narrated by the bent over old woman of the town, and it introduces most of the characters who live in the town square. There’s the café owner who has painted all of his chairs. There’s the woman who lives over the square and makes eyes with Roger. The issue I have with this is that this section takes about twenty minutes and it doesn’t really seem to matter very much. These are side characters in the film to come, and the way this film opens it feels like Tati was setting up an ensemble piece.
This movie is Tati’s, though. His character, Francois the mailman, rides in with a certain aloofness and ends up directing the successful upbringing of the pole. It’s an amusing little sequence that never becomes what I might call funny, but it’s enough to entertain slightly. And that ends up being the level on which most of the rest of the film works. As the festival rolls out, Francois continues on his rounds, and he ends up back at the festival getting drunk by slight deception on the part of Marcel and Roger, the gags are always slight and charming, but never hilarious. It also has a certain generic feel that distances itself from the rest of Tati’s later work.
It does gain the certain luddite aspect that Tati would revisit in his later films at about the halfway point when a Francois watches a silly little promotional film about American postmen. According to this short film (which uses completely unrelated stunt footage to solid comedic effect) American postmen were regularly training to fly helicopters, getting picked up by airplanes without exactly boarding them, and driving motorcycles through fire, pumping up the idea of the “modern” way of delivering mail in contrast to Francois, who still rides a bicycle with the same busted wheel that he has to fix himself. This is the setup for Tati to essentially end his first feature length film with his first directed short film.
After another bit where Marcel and Roger have fun at Francois’ expense, insisting that outrageous methods of riding a motorcycle are the right way to do things to go faster, Francois begins his day with energy and flair, flipping his shoulder sack around his body, hitching a ride alongside a truck to stamp his mail as he goes, and jumping off the back of his bike while its still moving to save himself seconds. A lot of this is re-filmed footage, though some individual shots from the short do appear here and there (including the best comedic bit in both dealing with the rope attached to a church bell), and it gives the film the kind of comedic energy the rest of the film doesn’t really have. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it saves the film, but it does make ending funnier than expected.
It’s not a bad first effort from Tati at all. Jour de Fete is a nice, gentle little film. It just doesn’t really have a center. The first bulk of the film ends up feeling extraneous. The adventures of Francois feel disjointed. However, it’s never less than nice.