Thursday, June 13, 2019

Review - Jour De Fete

June 13, 2019

Jour De Fete – France, 1949

Let it not be said that the masters of cinematic slapstick didn’t have a worthy successor. The problem is that he apparently had no interest in going down that road, and so we are left with just one film in which to view the man who could have been one of the greats. The comic wonder I speak of is actor-director Jacques Tati, and his lone foray into slapstick was his debut film,

Now if you asked me to explain the character Tati plays, I would be at a bit of a loss to explain him. He’s, well, odd, but not odd in a way that makes everyone keep their distance, but rather, odd in a lovably quirky way, and the fact that he seems to have no knowledge that many of the people around him see him as a source of entertainment first and a helpful member of the community second only adds to this. Or maybe it’s the other way around and we only get that impression because of the special day at the heart of the film.

In any event, Tati plays Francoise, a postman in a small countryside town where time seems to move at a much slower pace. We know this because of a passing comment a town member gives about the mail being picked up later despite the pick-up date having already passed. He certainly knows his postman. What’s more, he knows his town, and it’s a place where the postman is just as likely to be found lending a helping hand in the field as he is doing his route. At one point, his job is given to a young boy because Francoise’s strong hands are needed elsewhere – and perhaps because the boy will deliver the mail on time.

The role of Francoise asks a lot of Tati. There’s a running gag involving him being attacked by a bee while riding a bicycle, which is simply hilarious. In one scene, the bee seems to go from terrorizing him, to frustrating the members of a marching band before once again pursuing him. Later, Tati has to ride a bicycle faster than a falling pole, a gag that made me recall Buster Keaton’s memorable falling house stunt in Steamboat Bill, Jr. There’s also a scene in which Francoise tries to ride a bike that is unbeknownst to him on the other side of the fence, leading to multiple instances of his trying to “ride” the fence. It’s all great stuff, yet what puts it in the same category as the slapstick greats that preceded him is his complete acceptance of it all. When life makes a mockery of him, he just picks himself up and keeps going, as if it were all just a normal part of life.

To call Francoise the lead character would be slightly false, for the character does not really have a role in the film until about the half hour mark. Until then, the film is content to show us what happens when a traveling fair arrives for a one-day event. In the film’s opening scene, we follow a trailer full of merry-go-round horses and witness the influence they have on the local children, many of whom begin running behind the trailer with great big smiles on their faces. They know what’s coming. From there, we get a meeting with local officials and men prepping for the big event by going to the local barber for a shave and a haircut. Women don their nicest outfits, and one of the fair’s organizers casts flirtatious glances at one of the town’s lovely young ladies – much, I might add, to the consternation of the man’s wife. During one amazing scene, the man and woman stare at each other, and for a moment, it appears that they are engaged in one of those conversations which proceed a sweet rendezvous, yet upon closer inspection, we see their mouths are not moving at all, and the dialogue is from a movie that the fair has brought with it. Perhaps the dialogue is what they would say to each other if things were different.

When Francoise arrives, the film’s pace quickens, and we get a series of humorous encounters in which Francoise is a great help to many, while also being a source of humor for some. It seems a bit cruel at times, as all Francoise seems guilty of is being rather handy to have around. In fact, with the exception of the owner of a building that Francoise keeps riding his bicycle into, I can’t think of any reason that anyone would wish him ill.

The film finally makes it “point” after Francoise is invited to watch a short newsreel purporting to show real postmen in the United States. The images are ludicrous, the spitting image of parody, yet, having never traveled abroad, Francoise takes it as fact that postman are physical supermen trained as if they were acrobatic daredevils and Bond-like spies able to speed through fire without breaking a sweat or experiencing even a trace of fear. Soon, there he is adopting “American-style” delivery techniques and wreaking havoc all over town.

As I watched the film, I remembered what it was like in my youth when the fair would make its annual pilgrimage to Nevada Country. I was from a town that didn’t even have stoplights, so the fair, with its carnival-like rides, skill-testing games, huge prizes, and exotic animal attractions, was truly a big deal. Conversations among us kids often revolved around when we were going and, later, which of us had gone the most times. And after it had torn down its tents, dismantled its thrills, and headed off to its next destination, life returned to normal. We went back to school, our parents went back to work, the silence of the nights returned. Yet we never forgot those magical feelings, and when the fair returned the following year, we were right there.

Jour De Fete gets this about the fair and small towns. It is a reminder of simpler times and of the wonder that the new and magical can bring. It is also a film about the marching of time, inviting viewers to explore whether technological advances also lead to personal and cultural progress. And it is also a film about Francoise, a character I respect probably more than I understand. With Jour De Fete, Tati created a film that is driven less by narrative than by remarkable characters, and his film is a salute to life and the everyday people who inhabit our world. It is truly something special to behold. (on DVD and Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection's The Complete Jacques Tati box set)

3 and a half stars

*Jour De Fete is in French with English subtitles.

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