Proving that the postman always rings twice and Jan. 11 is his red-letter day, the ingenious and unprecedented color restoration of Gallic comedian Jacques Tati’s “Jour de fete” is cause for celebration. Pic’s Paris world preem kicks off France’s yearlong celebration of the centennial of cinema.
Tati’s first feature, in which he starred as an idiosyncratic letter carrier , was shot in 1947 on still-experimental and now-extinct Thomsoncolor film stock , with an adjacent “backup” camera shooting in black-and-white. Although the color-camera original was successfully developed, techies could never figure out how to strike color prints — until now. Accomplished though it was in previous incarnations, “Jour de fete” emerges as an even better film in color.
Pic was initially released in an 85-minute B&W version in 1949 (reviewed in Variety May 25, 1949) and re-released in 1964 in a 75-minute tinted version: A few hand-colored objects appeared in selected sequences and the character of a roving landscape painter was inserted to justify the occasional colored flag, ribbon, balloon or light. This color restoration reveals that Tati conceived his story as much in terms of color as in comic timing.
The restoration was painstakingly assembled by Tati’s daughter, editor Sophie Tatischeff, and cinematographer Francois Ede. Tatischeff had rescued the original reels from the trash when her father was making space to store his “Playtime” (1967). In his book “Jour de fete, ou la couleur retrouvee,” Ede describes the adventure of creating a faithful internegative from a never-printed one-of-a-kind reversal positive nearly half a century after the camera original was shot and developed.
Ede’s book, quoting firsthand witnesses from the original crew, implies that an exclusive contract between Kodak and Technicolor prevented Kodak from furnishing French lab Thomson with the emulsion to strike release prints from the Thomsoncolor original.
As an incentive to use the untried but patented process, Thomson provided film stock and tech support free of charge to producer Fred Orain. Tati began shooting while Thomson built and staffed a factory outside Paris, intending to give France its own color process. But the lab failed to produce a single foot of projectable color print.
In the pic, Tati stars as Francois, a rural postman on a bicycle who — egged on by his fellow citizens — is unduly influenced by a newsreel depicting the super-efficient U.S. mail service.
Tati adjusted the surroundings with color in mind, repainting doorways and dressing the locals in somber garb, the better to emphasize the arrival of color in town when a carnival visits. As revealed by the restoration, the region returns to earth tones and mild pastels when the carousel’s wooden horses are packed up.
The restoration sports a prologue in which production stills show the color and B&W cameras shooting side by side but does not explain the technical feats detailed in Ede’s book. New print features delicate colors dominated by somewhat nostalgic, naturalistic shades of green, brown and beige. Flesh tones are good. Night exteriors are hued a rich, deep blue.
Due to the waffle-pattern grid embedded in the backing of the Thomsoncolor stock (to capture refracted primary colors), the restoration resembles a moving series of fine photogravures seen through a filiform screen door. Since the reversal stock had less latitude than negative film, continuity of exposure sometimes varies. However, this, like the visible grid pattern, is not at all displeasing, even to the trained eye.
The restored version includes four minutes of colorized footage that existed only in B&W. Only reframing was for the sequence in which the docu on America’s mailmen is projected for the village; the B&W version was an optically printed composite that didn’t exist in color.
Tati shot a virtually silent movie that was post-synched with an optical soundtrack for its initial release; he returned on location in 1961 to record new ambient sounds and voices, which were digitally enhanced for the restoration. Pic’s inventive use of sound is now crisper.
An open-ended run is planned at prestige Gallic venues, and fests and distribs in other major world markets should stand in line to get in on the celebration.