Even though it hasn't been seen in the version originally released in cinemas in 1949 for years, Jacques Tati's Jour de Fete is still one of the most truly delightful comedies ever made. Expanded from his marvellous short film Ecole des Facteurs, made two years earlier, the majority of the film is a beautifully observed comedy about the foibles of a small village as it gets ready for and enjoys its annual Bastille Day fair. There's not much plot, just a series of little vignettes - trying to raise a flagpole, an unspoken flirtation between the merry-go-round man and a local girl under the watchful eye of his wife, a jukebox that won't work, paint that won't dry - while a crookbacked old goose woman passes the odd comment. Yet it's filled with beautiful sight gags, with the whole town, its animals and even balloons and bicycles seeming to conspire with the filmmaker with their uncanny comic timing. With his lanky frame and baggy pants, Tati gets great comic mileage out of his bicycle in particular, whether he's trying to make his way home after a few too many or trying to show the village that he can be just as speedy and efficient at his job as the American postmen in a newsreel. Sweet without being sickly, good natured without being twee, it benefits from Tati's great eye both for visual composition and small details like the girls limping home at the end of the day without losing sight of the bigger picture, opening and closing with perfect symmetry as a child skips after the truck carrying the Merry-Go-Round horses, first as it moves towards the village and finally as it departs to the accompaniment of Jean Yatove's charming score.
As with Polygram's video release and the BFI's earlier DVD, the Blu-ray release includes the original colour version that Tati shot but was never able to use in his lifetime when the company whose colour system he used went bust. Instead, Tati released a black and white version that was shot at the same time as what turned out to be a very wise precaution, but sadly the disc doesn't include that version. Instead it includes Tati's 1964 reissue version that reworked the film less than successfully.
While you can understand the rationale for the changes he made, they really do the film no favours. Along with slight tweaks to the editing, he introduced the new character of a visiting artist in newly shot sequences who observes and comments (sadly far too much) on the action. It sounds like the right sort of idea for the reissue, since by the early sixties the way of life the film gently celebrates was already almost extinct, but it doesn't work at all. Despite being shot in the same locations, he never interacts with anyone, changing the emphasis from the original version's insider's view of village life to that of an outsider. Worse still, in the English language version he's a very patronising figure, and one who won't shut up even when he has nothing to say - and unfortunately he's almost the only voice left in the picture. While the villagers do still speak, he often speaks over them, and when he doesn't they're not subtitled in English so many jokes and plot points are lost. The effect is unfortunately like one of those foreign children's programmes that they couldn't afford to dub with a full cast and just had one voice over telling you what you're watching. To make it even worse, the English narrator has the audacity to complain about the goose woman who sparingly narrated the original for `muttering to herself'!
Then there's the colour. Tati clearly hadn't entirely abandoned the idea of a more colourful film, but here that takes the form of the artist adding a few splashes of colour to his sketches which are suddenly mirrored in the film itself as the tricolour and decorations get a bit of red and blue grafted on them on the otherwise monochrome film. Unfortunately it's more distracting than complimentary, especially since the effect is highly variable. As with his reissue version of M. Hulot's Holiday, which added a joke spoofing Jaws, Tati does make one change to Francois getting changed at the Post Office so that we never see him getting changed but simply hear him and see the creaking steps as he runs up and down. It's a nice visual touch, but it's ultimately no more effective than the gag it replaces, and as with so much else in this version it tends to sideline the people who were once at the heart of the film.
Also included are Tati's three short films, the first two displaying a huge influence on Jour De Fete. 1936's Soigne ton Gauche, directed by Rene Clement, is set in a small village and features a postman on a bicycle in shots that would be copied in the later feature (as would Yatove's jaunty theme music), but this time Tati isn't the one in uniform but is playing a Ray Bolger-like farmhand who gets hired as a sparring partner for a visiting boxer in training. It's all a bit shapeless and less funny as it goes along, but the second, 1947's L'Ecole des Facteurs, is one of the best things Tati ever did. Starting off with Tati and two other new recruits finishing their training before following him on his first round, it virtually is the climax of Jour de Fete - stamping the letters on the back of the truck, tangling with the level crossing, chasing the runaway bike, outrunning the racing cyclists - in a neat 14 minutes, this time with Tati taking the director's chair as well as the starring role. Also included is 1967's Cours du Soir, partially filmed on the set built for Playtime before retiring indoors for a not particularly funny and at times interminably drawn-out lecture on mime with a few practical examples, including a throwback to Francois the postman.
Unfortunately the BFI's Blu-ray release is slightly disappointing despite nearly getting it right. While it includes the Thomson-Color version and the 1964 reissue version, it doesn't include the black and white original French release, which has slight differences to the colour version as well as better picture quality. While it's a good restoration, especially considering the colour system became obsolete in post-production, forcing Tati to release the black and white version he filmed at the same time as a precaution, the colour version has modern titles, a new closing shot and suffers from the limitations of the early colour process. This tends to soften detail, has some lines that look a bit like it's being projected onto high quality bonded velum paper and has the tones of a faded forties postcard, while some shots in the restoration are actually colorized black and white. The quality on the 1964 version is very inconsistent, initially being much cleaner before reverting to very obviously duped material for anything in the same reel as the partially-coloured sequences, becoming quite bad indeed in the too dark night scenes. Far worse is that the BFI have only included the English language version, without subtitles, even though they originally released the French version with subtitles - and crucially without the artist's endless yakking - on video.
And while it's wonderful that they've included the three Tati short films that they didn't include on their original DVD releases, these have only been included on the DVD version on this dual format release and haven't been remastered from the old deleted video release. L'Ecole des Facteurs in particular shows a lot of DNR work that adds an unwelcome blur to many shots. Similarly the trailer included is the 1995 colour reissue trailer despite being listed as the original trailer. All of which niggles do rather leave you with the feeling that they've stopped short of giving it the kind of definitive release it deserves. Still, it's the best English-friendly version for the time being, and the original version is still a delight.