Jacque Tati is France’s answer to the great silent comedians of the past arriving just a couple of decades too late. Not that his films were too late to gain esteem and accomplishment. They were very incredibly successful. But, had these films been made in the silent era, Monsieur Hulot, Tati’s bumbling comedic protagonist in much of his work, would be as remembered today as Chaplin’s Little Tramp because Tati’s work belongs to that era of cinematic comedy. The thing that’s immediately evident in Tati’s work is the graceful choreography and brilliantly creative set design. In fact, even from his first film Jour de Fete, these traits are probably the most evident and really the film’s greatest strengths.
Tati emerges here right from the start as a fully formed director and gifted comedic actor. Like much of his later work, the dialogue is muffled and unimportant to the larger narrative. Jour de Fete follows a Tati as a bumbling postman in a small French town who sees a film about the technological ingenuity of the modern American postman during the Bastille Day fair. In response, the townpeople mock him, egging him onto make the fastest delivery run of his life.
Much of Tati’s cinematic tics and themes emerge here and Jour de Fete feels like a fully formed Tati film as a result. His disdain in modern technology is more than evident as Tati constantly scoffs at any technological progress and thumbing his nose at even the automobiles on the road. Tati’s character glides along on a bicycle throughout the film in silent protest of the giant mechanical machines that clog the roadways.
There’s also an interesting color process to this film. Shot in both black and white and color, the version I watched has the painted colors of the French flag scattered throughout the film. It’s a quietly patriotic and humanistic film which is the utter grace of Tati’s films. Tati’s film is like the camerawork within the film. It keeps its distance observing its characters lovingly as they populate and play within his beautiful set design. The audience is brought in as editor of the film, focusing on one area of the screen to the next. We aren’t dictated by what we see but rather what we see is dictated by us. Tati is one of the masters of cinematic comedy because he understands the visual essence of film and allows the audience to live in those beautifully constructed frames creating a rich cinematic experience that would be difficult to duplicate.