Painting the town: Tati’s Jour de fête in colour

With the release of Jour de fête on DVD/Blu-ray, we trace the history of how Jacques Tati’s timeless comedy got its colour back.

Samuel Wigley

Jacques Tati’s debut feature, Jour de fête, started delighting audiences from the moment of its release in 1949, but it had to wait nearly half a century before it could show its true colours.

It’s set on fête day in the small town of Sainte-Sévère-sur-Indre, a gentle rural community where the first whiffs of modernity are wafting in on post-war winds. The village postman François (Tati) does his round by bicycle, stopping to help pitch some hay here or erect a flagpole there, his routine timed to the pace of a leisurely bucolic life.

But the hints of American jazz on the soundtrack suggest this is a fragile, antiquated idyll, and when François stops by the fête’s cinema tent and sees a demonstration film of the speedy efficiency of the US postal service, the postman decides it’s time to up his own game and commits to doing his round at the rate of knots – with hilariously catastrophic results.

Modernisation and its attendant pratfalls would become Tati’s major theme in subsequent films such as Mon oncle (1958) and Play Time (1967), but Jour de fête is also an endearing fable about the allure of the moving image. Anyone who’s ever come out of a film wanting to imitate onscreen heroism will spare a thought for François in his quixotic misadventures.

With bagfuls of ambition of his own, Tati shot his debut simultaneously in black and white and in an untested new colour process called Thomsoncolor. When it proved impossible to print colour copies from the Thomsoncolor negatives, the colour footage sadly had to be abandoned and so people around the world had their first taste of Tati’s inimitable comedy in black and white.

In black and white Jour de fête stayed, although some splashes of colour made their way into a 1964 re-edit of the film: Tati employed his animator friend Paul Grimault to add hand-painted colour to details such as French flags or an artist’s palette.

Colourised details in the 1964 version of Jour de fête

Colourised details in the 1964 version of Jour de fête

Only in 1995 was the problem of how to make a full-colour print from the Thomsoncolor negatives solved (by Tati’s daughter Sophie Tatischeff and François Ede), and the film was finally seen as Tati had originally hoped.

Both the colour version and the 1964 version with colour detailing are presented on the new Dual Format (DVD/Blu-ray) edition of the film. As the side-by-side frame comparisons below demonstrate, far from the thick, rich colour of contemporary Technicolor productions, the Thomsoncolor tones of Jour de fête have a wonderful, muted pastel quality, a storybook elegance that only advancing technology has been able to unlock.

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