Jacques Tati | 1hr 26min
Before Monsieur Hulot took over as Jacques Tati’s silent character of choice in the 50s, we had François the postman – not quite as a distinct a comedic icon as the lurching, overgrown child that would appear in his later films, but still operating on a clever enough level to send up western modernity through a Keaton-esque, full-bodied commitment to visual gags. As the small French village where he resides is setting up its Bastille Day celebrations in Jour de Fête, talk of America’s efficient mailing system has also arrived in town, and with it, François finds a new challenge: keep up with the times, or be left behind.
Along with being a skilled director of silent comedy, Tati has also proven himself to be a master of magnificent set pieces, reflected in the architecture of his later films ranging from quirky sculptures to monstrous dioramas. Perhaps he did not yet have the budget for these fantastic displays of visual grandeur, or maybe he had not developed his own artistic voice yet to understand their potential, but at times Jour de Fête feels slightly limited without bouncing Tati’s hilariously physical performance off these constructions. As it is, what we get is something a little more modest in ambition, yet also remarkably resourceful, making jokes out of a fence coming between a drunk François and his bike while he tries to mount it, or later a boom gate incidentally lifting it up out of sight.
In true silent fashion, dialogue is kept to a minimum so that music and sound effects can take over, leading us lightly through comedic episodes with accordions, vibraphones, trumpets, and a chamber of jovial strings. Within this soundscape, François is given his own motif in the form of the rattling bike bell, announcing his presence like his own whimsical, ringing musical theme.
Though he is hopelessly devoted to his neighbours and is always sure to offer a helping hand wherever he can, François is also the butt of many jokes, and thus feels that he has something to prove. With the American post office setting an example of efficiency in the western world, he takes it on himself to match their productivity on his own, leading into a directly Buster Keaton-inspired sequence that allows Tati the chance to prove his own talents as both an incredibly physical actor and director.
In superbly staged wide shots we watch a series of elaborate pratfalls play out, each one escalating with François’ struggle to keep up with himself, overtaken by the “American style” of mail delivery. When one recipient doesn’t take their letter in time, he simply leaves it wedged underneath their horse’s tail before speeding off again, and at one point it looks as if his bike takes on a life of its own, zooming down the street while he is left chasing it from behind.
The sheer velocity with which Tati moves through his gags in this fantastic sequence can only be halted with a stunt that sees François ride full speed over the edge of the road into a river, finally capping his mad dash with an obstacle he cannot overcome. There may be plenty of cynical directors out there who dissect the industrial march of capitalistic progress with a much sharper blade, but Tati has no such aspirations with this sort of subject matter. In Jour de Fête, the most we can do is point and laugh at the absurdity of such grand ambitions, before falling back on the reliable affability of one humble postman.
Jour de Fête is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel and available to rent or buy on iTunes.