Jour de Fête (1949)

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.

-Brandon Ledet

Claude Autant-Lara: Four Romantic Escapes from Occupied France

Typically, when we discuss French Cinema as a hegemony, we’re talking about creatively adventurous arthouse pictures that follow in the tradition of the French New Wave movement that arrived in the rebellious days of the 1960s. France’s more frivolous screwball comedies & trashy genre pictures tend to land far outside our radar, whereas the USA globally exports so much of its pop culture glut you’d be forgiven for assuming our own cinematic landscape was comprised entirely of Transformers sequels & Paul Blart Mall Cops. What’s even more unclear to Americans, besides what purely commercial modern French cinema looks like, is what, exactly The French New Wave was bucking against in the 1960s. Like with modern commercial comedies & trashy crime pictures (think All That Divides Us) that don’t make it to American shores with any significant impact, France’s stately, pre-New Wave cinematic past is an export lacking any kind of an immediate hook to draw in contemporary American audiences.

The Criterion Collection’s Eclipse Series box set Claude Autant-Lara—Four Romantic Escapes from Occupied France is a major exception to that generalization, but not for any concerns of content or craft. Its four escapist-entertainment features directed by Claude Autant-Lara during the German occupation of France in WWII have enough extratextual, cultural value to earn a prestigious spot in the Criterion Collection canon, something that’s usually reserved for the rebellious New Wave brats who sought to challenge Autant-Lara’s traditionalist approach to filmmaking. They’re also, for the most part, frivolous romcoms, charmingly so.

Claude Autant-Lara is not one of the artistic & political rebels we usually associate with French Cinema. In fact, in the 1980s he was disgracefully booted from his position in the European Parliament after exposing himself as a hard-right Holocaust denier, which is more than enough to justify labeling him as The Enemy. Still, there is a kind of defiance to making escapist entertainment in the face of military occupation, or at least there is a value to the comfort it could provide. Either way, the truth is that you would never assume that wartime context watching the films in this set if you weren’t told to look for it. The real draw of the pictures is actor Odette Joyeux, who is endlessly lovable as the lead performer in each film, a mischievous persona who’s bigger than the rigidly formalistic pictures that (barely) contain her.

Autant-Lara’s escapist romances are (with one major exception) handsomely staged, genuinely funny comedies, even if they are nested in an overly well-behaved French Filmmaking past. The most this set’s wartime context benefits it is in affording the films an imperative for contemporary audiences to revisit them as cultural objects, though all we might find is a glimpse at the status quo the French New Wave later subverted.

For individual reviews of each film, follow the links below or check out our podcast discussion of the entire box set.

Le Mariage de Chiffon (1942) – “Set in the pre-War past of the aristocratic 1910s, Le Mariage de Chiffon chipperly offers pop entertainment escapism though romance & humor, a much-needed distraction for German-occupied France. The hotel settings, mistaken identities, and absurd misunderstandings of the classic comedy structure are prominent throughout, but in a distinctly charming way. This is a genuinely, enduringly funny picture, thanks largely to Joyeux’s hijinks as Chiffon.”

Lettres d’Amour (1942) – “Odette Joyeux, who stars in all four of the films in this box set, is a joy to watch as the stubborn leader of a minor rebellion. Her comedic timing is perfection and the jokes are surprisingly fresh despite being 60+ years old. The costuming is exquisite, and the setting is picturesque.”

Douce (1943) – “If all the films in this set are meant to be understood as escapist entertainment, Douce is one meant to satisfy the most morbid of Parisians, ones who’d prefer a weepie over a farce. It’s just as handsomely staged & playful as Autant-Lara’s other German-occupation romances, but its overall effect is exceptionally grim for that context.”

Sylvie et le Fantôme (1946) – “Before writing, directing, and starring in the ‘Monsieur Hulot’ films, a youthful Jacques Tati incorporates his signature graceful slapstick physicality into the co-titular role of ‘le Fantôme.’ As the only real ghost in the film and the only one not wearing a bedsheet, he pirouettes unseen around the living with his adorable side-kick, a floppy incorporeal spaniel also known (in my heart, at least) as Puppy Ghost. In my opinion, this film should be famous for Puppy Ghost rather than Tati, but you should decide for yourself.”

-Brandon Ledet & CC Chapman

Sylvie et le Fantôme (1946)

The final film in the Claude Autant-Laura box set Four Romantic Escapes from Occupied France (for our other reviews look here), Sylvie et le Fantome is the most famous of the four due to its clever visual effects and a starring role for future beloved director Jacques Tati. Before writing, directing, and starring in the ‘Monsieur Hulot’ films, a youthful Tati incorporates his signature graceful slapstick physicality into the co-titular role of “le Fantome.” As the only real ghost in the film and the only one not wearing a bedsheet, he pirouettes unseen around the living with his adorable side-kick, a floppy incorporeal spaniel also known (in my heart, at least) as Puppy Ghost. In my opinion, this film should be famous for Puppy Ghost rather than Tati, but you should decide for yourself.

Sylvie et le Fantome is a lovely romantic fantasy involving a lovelorn girl on her birthday and an assortment of ghosts, both real and hired. Sylvie (played by Odette Joyeux, who stars in every entry in this series) is a spiritual predecessor of Beetlejuice’s Lydia Deetz, a dreamy girl who has convinced herself she in love with the ghost of her grandmother’s long-deceased lover, Alain de Francigny, who died in a duel for her honor. Although Sylvie’s once-wealthy family lives in a large castle, they are reduced to selling off their antiques to an art dealer. In both an effort to raise money and wean Sylvie from her impossible infatuation, her father schemes to sell of an heirloom painting of Alain from under Sylvie’s nose using the house’s secret tunnels. During an encounter in the tunnels, the son of the art dealer develops a crush on Sylvie and unintentionally rattles Alain from his long-slumber. Now freed, Alain, played by Tati using some very clever visual effects, notices and appreciates Sylvie’s affection. He gently teases her and her relatives with simple ghost tricks—blowing out their matches, preventing Sylvie from blowing out her birthday candles, etc. At the same time that Alain and the art dealer’s son, Frederick, are sneaking around the castle, a reform-school dropout turned petty thief has also managed to break in, but becomes trapped when the police begin combing the countryside for him.

Sylvie’s father gets the idea to hire an actor to play Alain de Francingy at Sylvie’s birthday as a fun midnight surprise during an adorable scene where his butler reads him bedtime ghost stories. When Frederick and the thief, Ramure (aka Branch, “It’s my winter name”), get caught by Sylvie’s father he simply thinks they were sent by the actor’s agency. By the time Sylvie’s birthday starts, we’re up to three fake ghosts and one real ghost all playing overlapping tricks and having separate encounters with Sylvie. Romance and ghostly hijinks ensue as Sylvie becomes confused about which version of Alain’s ghost she’s truly in love with, while all four “phantoms” (including the real one) compete for her affection.

Sylvie et le Fantome does not offer the frothy costuming of Le Mariage de Chiffon and Lettres d’Amour, nor the emotional depth of Douce, but it is still a playful delight. Despite the sophisticated effects and the overwrought comedy of errors plot, this film seems like the only one of the four that could work as a play. It has the same nimble wordplay as the other three, but a greater number of intimate moments between characters that would translate well to the stage. Overall, this was the least political, but most poetic of the series. Perhaps it was the cachet of Jaques Tati, but it was probably the utter-adorability of Puppy Ghost that cemented this film as my favorite in the box set.

-CC Chapman