Rustic idyll celebrates France's comic masterpiece

27th May 2007, Comments 0 comments

SAINTE-SEVERE-SUR-INDRE, France, May 27, 2007 (AFP) - Sixty years ago this month, a gangling figure arrived by jeep with a small group of friends in the remote village of Sainte-Severe-sur-Indre and began work on what was to become one of the best-loved French movies of all time.

SAINTE-SEVERE-SUR-INDRE, France, May 27, 2007 (AFP) - Sixty years ago this month, a gangling figure arrived by jeep with a small group of friends in the remote village of Sainte-Severe-sur-Indre and began work on what was to become one of the best-loved French movies of all time.

Jacques Tatischeff was a 39-year-old half-Russian comic actor who had made his name in pre-war Paris music-hall, and was now bent on transferring his formidable talents onto celluloid.

Over the next five months the village square -- complete with covered market and 15th-century fortified entrance -- was converted into a set, and Sainte-Severe's 1,000 inhabitants dragooned into supporting cast for the first feature film by the genius better known as Jacques Tati.

"Jour de Fete" (Festival Day) recounts the adventures of a conscientious but accident-prone rural postman -- Francois played by Tati -- who on fair-day sees a travelling film-show about the exploits of the US postal service and is inspired to emulate them on his trusty bike.

It ends of course in disaster. Flying ever faster through the countryside, Francois finishes in a duck-pond, furnishing Tati with the first example of what was to be his trademark moral about the futility of mindless modernity.

Buried in the rolling countryside of the Berry region of central France, Sainte-Severe has changed little in more than half a century -- as if to preserve the poignancy of Tati's message.

The square is protected by a conservation order, as is the cafe which Francois repeatedly enters helter-skelter on his bike. The streets are tarmacked now and there are some new houses on the outskirts, but otherwise all is the picture of a mediaeval rustic idyll.

Among today's inhabitants are several who performed as young children in "Jour de Fete", and this month they have played a leading part in festivities to mark the film's 60th anniversary -- as well as the centenary of Tati's own birth and the 25 years since his death.

"I was just five but I remember it perfectly," said Jean-Claude Laruelle, 65, who features in the film as a cherubic boy in shorts staring longingly at the fair's merry-go-round.

"Tati got to know all the faces in the village and he would choose who he wanted for each scene. He was very kind and funny, but a real perfectionist in his work. I remember him making me rehearse the right look and the right stance over and over."

Giselle Lamy, 75, who as a teenage girl can be seen following the village brass band, recalls that "we had just come out of the war and there were still shortages of everything. We had never been to a cinema let alone seen a movie camera.

"And it was an exceptional summer -- which was just as well because they could only film when it was sunny. That was why it was such a magical time," she said.

"Jour de Fete" was a huge French hit on its release in 1949. Initially made in black-and-white, it had new success in 1995 when it was re-issued in colour. In fact Tati had shot everything with two cameras, and though he was stymied by processing problems the film is technically France's first colour feature.

Tati went on to make three other classics that established his name around the world: "Monsieur Hulot's Holiday" in 1953, "My Uncle" in 1958 -- which won an Oscar for best foreign film -- and 1967's "Playtime".

Inspired by silent film greats like Charlie Chaplin, Tati's technique was to compose tightly-choreographed visual gags with minimal dialogue but clever use of sound. His Monsieur Hulot character -- a sort of genial innocent with trademark coat and pipe -- is cited by Rowan Atkinson as a source for Mr. Bean.

"Tati was ahead of his time. The way he associated sound and image was ground-breaking. There is a blend of humour and poetry in his work which is unique," said British film-maker and Tati expert David Furnham.  

Born near Paris in 1907, Tati served in the cavalry as a young man -- where a fellow officer served as his model for Hulot -- and in World War II fled to deepest Berry to escape compulsory work service in Germany. He loved the people and vowed to set his first film there.

Among his collaborators on the project was Andre Pierdel, a magician by trade who had also made his name in pre-war Paris and was taken on as Tati's special effects man for this and later films. Now 85, he religiously visits Sainte-Severe on every anniversary.

"I did all the tricks for him on 'Jour de Fete' -- like the bike that runs down hill by itself. That was me. They were wonderful times. There were just 10 of us to make the film. It was like a cottage industry," Perdiel said.


Copyright AFP

Subject: French news, Festival de Cannes

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