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

Utopia (1951)

I picked up a dirt cheap, used DVD copy of the Laurel & Hardy comedy Utopia (aka Atoll K, aka Robinson Crusoeland) thinking it’d likely be as good of an introduction to the comedy duo’s 23 film catalog as any. I’ve done my best to catch up with comedy staples like Charlie Chaplin and Abbott & Costello over the years,  but somehow the filmography of Laurel & Hardy has always escaped me. This was an ill-advised point of entry as an outsider, as it turns out that Utopia was the final film in Laurel & Hardy’s catalog, a misfire that put an end to their career. It’s difficult to even know which version of the film is the definitive one, since they’re are four separate cuts with four different runtimes, none of which were positively received. Filmed in Europe with a blacklisted American director years after the comedy duo’s heyday, Utopia was engineered to function entirely as last gasp cash grab. It was anything but. The shoot was supposed to take twelve weeks, but instead lasted an entire year, dragging out any chance to make a quick buck off the shriveling Laurel & Hardy legacy before it disappeared entirely, with no chance to financially succeed. You can feel that labor in every dull frame of the picture too; it plays more like a hostage video than a slapstick comedy.

The main problem with Utopia is that it works way too hard for way too long to establish what should be a simple premise. Laurel & Hardy inherit a rickety yacht & an uncharted island from a deceased uncle, where they intend to establish a paradisal version of Mortville to ease their economic troubles. It takes an absolute eternity for them to reach that goal, as the movie wastes tons of time in unnecessarily expensive sight gags suffered by their traveling ship for more than half the runtime. It takes a solid 40 minutes for the plot to fully set up Laurel & Hardy alone in the island with two other dirty men & one beautiful lady. It takes a full hour before that crew decides to establish their own country, Crusoeland. That only leaves 20 minutes for the film’s basic premise to play itself out, which really wouldn’t be a problem if the lead-up were shorter or less labored. I was simply too exhausted by Utopia’s narrative mechanics of setting up the political follies of a small island country to be amused by the inhabitants of that island treating a lobster like a pet dog or trying to pile into a single bed. Instead of achieving the knee-slapping energy of a light-hearted farce, Utopia presents a frustrating existential crisis where everyone from the (multiple!) directors to the actors to the audience has to work way too hard for laughs that never arrive or feel worth the effort.

As poor of a Laurel & Hardy introduction as Utopia turned out to be, it at least thematically clued me in on some of the duo’s charms. They way they function like a married couple (“Don’t I always take care of you? You’re the first one I think of.”) and turn their dire economic peril into (sometimes literal) gallows humor is endearing, at least. I can also get behind their central goal to establish a country with “no passports, no prisoners, no taxes, no laws, and no murder.” It’s a shame that those sentiments are buried under a film so visibly tired & directionless. Every potential is wasted, from Laurel & Hardy’s vaudevillian energy to the absence of a performance from French singer Suzy Declare, the only female performer of note onscreen. By the time previously absent narration intrudes halfway through the runtime to summarize the young country’s efforts to tame the island they inhabit the whole thing feels like a mess that should have been cancelled the first month it fell behind schedule. No one steering the ship wanted to be there and I didn’t want to be watching them go through the motions, especially not as a first time audience for an iconic comedy duo I’ve never witnessed in their prime.

-Brandon Ledet

The Mermaid (2016)

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It’s downright shocking how little of an impact The Mermaid is making in American theaters. Disregarding the fact that director Stephen Chow has two legitimate cult classics under his belt, Kung Fu Hustle & Shaolin Soccer, the film is also, no big deal, the single highest grossing film Chinese theaters of all time. It also doesn’t hurt that the film is a bizarre, hilarious, wonderfully idiosyncratic live action cartoon that might stand as the director’s most satisfying work to date (though I’ve heard great things about Journey to the West & haven’t seen it yet). In a better world The Mermaid would be making waves in American theaters at the very least out of cultural curiosity. In the world we live in it’s a difficult film to track down (opening to a beyond-depressing number of 35 theaters across the country), suffering a dismally small distribution for a remarkably silly film that truly deserves much, much better.

I’ll admit that for the first ten minutes or so of The Mermaid I had a somewhat awkward time adjusting to its comedic vibes. A trip through a tourist trap “museum” of “exotic animals” (think of Uncle Stan’s bullshit gift shop on Gravity Falls), a post-auction business meeting involving a malfunctioning jetpack, and a billionaire playboy’s rap video-opulence pool party all are enjoyably silly in  a minor way, but also a little awkward from the outside looking in. It isn’t until the titular mermaid hijacks the film’s narrative that the weirdness opens up in a beautifully satisfying way. The mermaid of The Mermaid‘s moniker not only steals the show with her effortlessly charming, singing, dancing, flying, skateboarding ways, she also brings out the best (and worst) in all the characters that surround her. What at first promises to be a dull male lead in a billionaire playboy pollution junkie ends up being a gutbusting buffoon & a worthy player in the mermaid’s literal fish out of water romance once she brings him to life. The film might need to get kickstarted before it wins you over, but once it gets rolling there’s a relentlessly bizarre, cartoonish sense of humor to it that’s genuinely eager to please in an endearing way.

In The Mermaid‘s mythology, humans & merpeople are both evolutionary descendants of apes. Merpeople just happen to descend from apes who lived in water, having no use for their legs & forming fish tails in their stead. Merpeople traditionally choose to avoid humans due to their historical tendency to hunt & maim their seafaring counterparts, but their populations are disrupted & effectively destroyed by a grand “reclamation” project that makes it no longer possible for the merpeople to live in reclusive peace. Because the heartless business man responsible for the destructive reclamation project is known in the tabloids to be a notorious “pervert”, the merpeople decide to send one of their own to seduce & assassinate him in cold blood. Things inevitably go awry when the mermaid falls in love with the business monster who has ruthlessly maimed her people for profits & brings out a better person from within his damaged soul. The question is whether she’s willing to betray her people in the name of true love or whether the business prick will change his heart in time to reverse the damage he’s done to the mermaid’s natural environment.

At heart, The Mermaid is a very basic tale of “evil” humans learning that making money isn’t necessarily more worthwhile than simple universal needs like clean, unpolluted water & air. What’s fascinating is the way that director Steven Chow tells this story through a kaleidoscope of different cinematic genres. Parts of the film feel like an over-earnest romcom. Parts could pass as a heartbreaking drama about environmental destruction, complete with real life images of very real big business pollution atrocities. Parts are a straight-up spoof of the 60s super-spy genre. The whole thing is bizarrely subverted & repurposed through Chow’s hyper-specific & increasingly focused comedic lens that feels like a melting pot of aesthetics that range from Tim & Eric to Looney Tunes to ZAZ-style genre parody. Chow is becoming a master of his own aesthetic, a sort of goofball auteur. At different times throughout The Mermaid, I felt sincere romance, I laughed until I was physically sore, and I sat in abject terror as the movie took a nastily violent turn in his portrayal of just how “evil” humanity can be. Like most parody artists (or at least most of the ones who are good at what they do) Chow has an innate sense of how genre tropes work & how they can be repurposed for varying effects.

It’s not at all surprising that The Mermaid is performing so well in foreign markets. The film requires a leap of faith in its opening minutes, but once you get into its cartoonish, almost psychedelic groove it’s greatly rewarding. What is surprising is that its commercial success isn’t translating well to American theaters (not that Sony’s distribution gave it much of a chance). This isn’t a bleak foreign film about the ravages of war & the emotional turmoil of the economically downtrodden (at least not the whole film works that way). It’s a sublimely silly, largely physical, slapstick comedic fantasy with a charming romance & a unique visual palette (one that puts its cheap CGI to profoundly effective & deeply silly use) at its core. It should be a commercial hit. If you have the chance to catch it in its limited domestic run, it might be worth a gamble of a ticket price. You’re likely to find something about it that’s worthwhile, since Chow covers so much ground here & the film is, at heart, a shameless crowdpleaser.

Side note: Part of the reason it might’ve been difficult to get on The Mermaid‘s wavelength in its opening minutes is that the version I saw was dubbed into Cantonese & then subtitled in English. The dissonance of this out of sync presentation was at first a little disorienting, but that awkwardness did fade a great deal in time. I do believe the opening minutes are the film’s weakest stretch, but the awkward effect of that double translation should probably still be noted & further points to just how mishandle this film’s distribution truly was.

-Brandon Ledet