I knew when I was watching Jacques Tati play a romantic ghost in Sylvie and the Phantom that I wasn’t getting an especially arcuate representation of the comedian’s usual work. That’s why it was such an unmissable event for me when The Prytania Theatre was screening Tati’s directorial debut feature Jour de Fête in a proper theatrical environment, even if the lousy six-person attendance number indicated that it wasn’t much of a priority for the rest of the city. As Tati is best known for playing the recurring slapstick caricature Monsieur Hulot in his later works, Jour de Fête might have itself been an unconventional entry point for understanding the general shape of his oeuvre. Still, its deeply silly, anarchic physical humor seems much more typical to Tati’s reputation as a high-brow slapstick artist than Sylvie & The Phantom’s casting of him as the undead spirit of an ancient dreamboat (dutifully accompanied by his loyal puppy ghost, who gets most of the laughs). Tati may have been a rookie director when he made Jour de Fête, but he arrived on the scene with a distinct, fully developed comedic voice—one that can apparently still earn belly laughs 70 years later in a near-empty theater.
Tati stars in the film as a bumbling mailman in a small Central France village. The supposed conflict of the premise is that the mailman is overwhelmed by the sudden influx of work that arrives with a traveling carnival that passes through his tiny village. Truthfully, it’s not only the carnival that overwhelms the mailman, but also the bored whims of his own community. Jour de Fête is a drunken slapstick comedy about a rural village that bands together to troll their own mailman for being a nerd who strives to be good at his job while everyone else is partying. The carnival aspect is only festive background decoration for the relentless pranks villagers & carnival folk alike torment the mailman with for their own amusement. We’re introduced to the townsfolk & the carnies well before the mailman arrives, painting a false picture of a simple people who take wholesome pleasure out of a calm farm-life. As soon as Tati starts biking his delivery route that perception fades as everyone around him takes turns trolling him for taking his job seriously in any way they can manage: tricking him into doing their work, tricking him into getting blackout drunk, encouraging goats to eat his mail, and often just laughing directly in his face. It would be unbearably cruel if it weren’t so damn funny.
There is one truly inspired gag that elevates Jour de Fête as a standout among its ilk. One of the carnival’s main attractions is a makeshift cinema tent they place in town square, where the mailman watches an industrial “documentary” on American post offices that falsely portray U.S. delivery men as daredevil bodybuilders who disperse mail in sexy, death-defying feats of strength at incredible speeds. Not to be outdone, this French mailman spends the rest of the film haphazardly dispersing packages at a needlessly hyperactive speed, shouting “American style!” at any villager inconvenienced by his newfound gusto. The villagers themselves also make for some excellent people-watching, as Jour de Fête was shot on location in the small commune village of Sainte-Sévère-sur-Indre and cast many of the locals as extras & bit roles. Much of the film is a standard slapstick farce otherwise, one so conventional it includes a genuine rake gag. Tati is a little taller & ganglier than the Stooges, Keatons, and Marx Brothers before him and, as a director, affords the proceedings some welcome visual & narrative symmetry. In almost every other way, though, Jour de Fête is a traditional, even vaudevillian slapstick comedy – one that may have even been considered old-fashioned for its time. It’s also timeless in that’s still incredibly funny, proof that the old standards still work when they’re well executed. My only regret in seeking it out as an introductory Tati picture is that I couldn’t have seen it with a bigger crowd to amplify the laugher.