Sunday 12 October 2008

Jour de fête (1949)

The more I talk with people who actually make movies instead of just watching and reviewing them, the more I want to make something myself, not that I'm likely to ever find the time and not that I'm likely to have a clue how to do it. Some filmmakers want to make it big and achieve great commercial success. Others want to make a point, to prove for instance that epic films can be made cheaply and effectively without a $300 million budget. Some want to be Steven Spielberg, some want to be Robert Rodriguez. I'd just like to make something that I want to watch and nobody seems to make any more, regardless of any of the other details.

In particular I'd make something that tells a story like a silent film, using lighting and gesture and imagery, but incorporates the sort of clever use of sound that Fritz Lang used in M. I don't believe that we always need to tell stories with dialogue, even if we do have the technology to do it, just as I don't believe we need CGI or colour or anything digital. I'd love to make a surreal fantasy film noir on German expressionist sets with sound but no dialogue. I don't care that nobody else would want to see it: I would and that's enough for me.

I've seen hardly anything like that in my explorations of cinema but there are films out there that attempt this sort of storytelling without dialogue. One of the most notable that I've found thus far is Mr Hulot's Holiday, a 1953 French comedy starring Jacques Tati that really hearkened back to the silent days of the great slapstick comedians while foreshadowing modern equivalents like Mr Bean. Eager for more Tati, I've kept my eyes open and leapt at the four film mini-festival that Turner Classic Movies put on for what would have been his 101st birthday. It begin with this one: a feature length 1949 version of a short he made a couple of years earlier called School for Postmen.

Tati is François, the postman of a small town called Sainte-Sévère-sur-Indre, though we don't meet him for a little while. Initially we're watching the town set up for the annual fair, the big day of the title, which they seem unable to do until François comes along. There's plenty of of sight gags and physical stunts and we're introduced to what seems like the whole town through the comments of an old hunchbacked woman, wandering around the town square with her goat. The most obvious thing is that Tati is realy tall but the other is that he's perfectly capable of the sort of antics that Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd got up to.

The real story here though begins halfway through. The fair shows movies in the town square, and a drunken François, along with many of the townsfolk, gets to see a documentary of the Pathe style explaining how American postmen do their job: with the aid of helicopters, planes and ruthless mechanical efficiency. Soon François, fed up with the constant jibes from his customers, takes it upon himself to implement a similar speedy and efficient approach. Beyond expounding a uniquely French take on things like speed and efficiency, this leads to many opportunities for sight gags, slapstick and physical humour.

Tati also wrote and directed, and shot his film in a unique way: both in colour and in black and white. However the form of colour he used, Thomson-Color, became obsolete and unprocessable before he could release the film, so he resorted to the black and white backup. It's still pretty colourful though, as there are plenty of odd little instances of what is presumably colorisation, with French flags and roundabout horses and little pennants coloured in basic shades. The Thomson-Color version is now available, apparently, though this isn't the version I've just seen. It became processable in 1995 and Tati's daughter completed the work.

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