Before Jacques Tati became Monsieur Hulot, he played a bicycle-riding postman in “Jour de Fete.” The film, originally filmed in color, came out in black and white in 1949 with hand-tinted color scenes. Certain scenes present individual objects in color, such as flags, balloons, bunting and wooden horses in a merry-go-round. The story focusses on a one-day travelling carnival that comes to a small French village. The fair features the usual games and sideshows, including a tent showing a short film about the American postal service.
Director Tati, who plays a French postman named Francois, bungles through the village on his daily postal run. He stops to help set up the carnival flagpole (with its hand-tinted French flag), stops for a “tipple” or two of wine, and fails to deliver all the mail in his leather pouch. At one point, owing to his ineptitude, Francois manages to feed an important telegram to a goat. But when the postman sees a film at the carnival about the efficiency of the US Post Office, its spurs him to action.
Francois wakes up the next day with a firm resolve to deliver the mail with speed and efficiency. He zooms through his delivery on his bicycle, which Tati uses as a very funny prop throughout the film. Tati’s loose-limbed height and daredevil stunts add to the hilarity, along with the multiple sight gags. I found it such a pleasure to witness this physical comic and gifted director complete his funny business with such exquisite comedy timing.
I love it when directors emphasize the visual spectacle over the dialogue. Tati turns up the sound on the bike’s horn, buzzing insects, cow moos, and various crashes and pratfalls, but turns down the sound on the film’s dialogue. This technique puts the viewer into the slow and traditional pace of life. Tati also puts lets a hunched-over old lady give us a tour of the village, so we know how the townsfolk look forward to their carnival day. Oddly enough, the inhabitant who rises the earliest every day is an artist, who sets up his easel near the town center. It’s as though Tati is making a comment about the artistic nature of village life, with its daily rituals and special characters putting themselves into the frame.
The film about the American postal service shows postmen delivering mail by helicopter, motorcycles and biplanes. Francois tries to upgrade his efficiency too, but discovers that the French way works fine too. Like the yearly carnival, Francois’ speedy day of mail delivery becomes a one-day experiment. In this case, the traditional pace of life beats technological progress.