The funniest filmmaker you've never heard of

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Le Grand Amour
  • Le Grand Amour
This month the Gene Siskel Film Center presents a retrospective on Pierre Etaix, the venerable French comedian whose work as a writer-director-star dates mostly from the 60s. I try not to toss around words like revelatory, but I'd never heard of this guy before, and almost every one of his comedies in the series blew me away. In this era of cheap wisecracks, the sight gag is a dying art; with Jackie Chan settling into middle age, the only contemporary aces I can think of are Dominique Abel and Fiona Gordon (Rumba, The Fairy). Etaix's early classics—which were tied up in litigation for 30 years but have now been beautifully restored—are so loaded with choice visual humor that they barely need soundtracks. When Yoyo, the circus clown he plays in the movie of the same name, is asked how he comes up with all these gags, he replies simply, "I observe." It's a revealing answer—we all know people who hear but never listen, so it shouldn't surprise us that most comedians look but never see.

Born in 1928, Etaix moved to Paris in the early 50s and got his start in show business as a cabaret performer and a circus clown. Before long he came to the attention of Jacques Tati, who hired him as a gag man and assistant director for Mon Oncle (1958), and (weirdly enough) Robert Bresson, who gave him a bit part in Pickpocket (1959). Etaix made his own directing debut with Rupture (1961), an 11-minute short in which his attempt to write a love letter is thwarted by the misbehavior of a fountain pen, an envelope, and a postage stamp. This was followed by Happy Anniversary (1962), a more elaborate effort in which he tries to pick up flowers and a bottle of wine to bring home to his wife but has to reckon with rush-hour traffic and a chronic shortage of parking places. Happy Anniversary was a big success, winning both an Oscar and a BAFTA award for best short film, though by that time Etaix had already moved up to features with The Suitor (1962).

Etaix may have been Tati's protege, but The Suitor is more heavily reminiscent of Buster Keaton. (Following a long decline in Hollywood, Keaton had reenergized his career in 1947 with an acclaimed gig at the Cirque Medrano in Paris, and he was a revered figure among French clowns.) The opening sight gag—a nerdy young man (Etaix) tears a girly photo from a magazine, then pins up the scientific chart on the reverse side of the page—harks back to the silent era in its instant illumination of character. The man's long-suffering parents want him to find a wife and move out of their house, which leads him into a series of romantic misadventures. One of Keaton's funniest stage routines (which he committed to film in Spite Marriage) involved him struggling to put a sleeping woman to bed while she bent at the waist and her limbs flopped this way and that, and it must have inspired the extended sequence in The Suitor in which the hero gets mixed up with a drunken floozy at a nightclub and has to drive her home and drag her up the stairs to her apartment. Later he becomes infatuated with a sexy chanteuse and turns his bedroom into a shrine for her; a giant poster covers his dresser, and one of the drawers opens out at her bust.

The Suitor may have followed in the Keaton tradition, but Yoyo (1966), Etaix's elegy to circus life, often reminded me of Chaplin—both The Circus (1928), with its melancholy final sequence of the wagons rolling off to leave the Tramp inside the circular rut of a dismantled ring, and Limelight (1950), his loving tribute to the English music halls where he learned his craft. Etaix plays two roles in Yoyo: a Roaring 20s millionaire who fathers a son with a glamorous circus bareback rider and loses his shirt in the stock market crash, and the grown son, a beloved clown named Yoyo, who sets out to rehabilitate the father's decrepit mansion. The film is conceptually brilliant, each of its three acts modeled on one of the mass-media forms that killed the big top (silent movies, talkies, and TV). It's also beautifully surreal; at one point a door at the end of a hallway magically opens onto a circus ring (Keaton pioneered this point-of-view trick in Sherlock Jr.). The comic climax, in which an elephant invades the mansion during a swank party, is heavily reminiscent of Luis Buñuel, and in fact Jean-Claude Carriere, who cowrote Etaix's first five films, would collaborate with Buñuel on Belle de Jour, The Milky Way, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, and The Phantom of Liberty.

As Long As You're Healthy (1966) represents a step backward for Etaix; having broken into features with The Suitor and created an emotionally resonant story with Yoyo, he strung together five unconnected shorts of varying quality for his third feature. There are still some great gags, though: in "The Movies," he leaves muddy footprints on a linoleum floor, wipes them off with a mop, and then wipes them back on again. Five years after the initial release, Etaix recut the film, lopping off one of the episodes and adding the brilliant "Insomnia" as the opener. In color, Etaix tries to get to sleep by reading a vampire novel; intercut with this are black-and-white scenes from the book that recall the heavy-breathing gothicism of the Hammer horror films. The segment cleverly parodies that old cinematic conceit of cutting to a story that a character is reading: when Etaix accidentally grabs the book wrong side up, the black-and-white story appears upside-down, and when his eyelids begin to flutter, a shadow descends over the vampire tale.

Tonight brings the second and final screening of Le Grand Amour (1969), Etaix's first film in color and my personal favorite of the ones I've seen. The story begins with the hero marrying his longtime sweetheart in a high-church ceremony, and this extended sequence, with its minimal dialogue and hilarious sound effects, comes closest to the comic tone of Tati's movies (particularly Playtime, though it isn't anywhere near as elaborate). Trouble looms when the husband falls head over heels for his 18-year-old secretary, and in the movie's most impressive set piece, as he drifts off to sleep one night, his bed rolls into the shadows of the bedroom and out onto a country lane, where he encounters all manner of vehicular beds before picking up his young honey on the side of the road. Later on, when the husband's pal urges him to pursue a 50-50 divorce settlement, there's another reverie in which everything in the couple's apartment—from the sculptures to the furniture to the TV set—has been sawed neatly in half.

I haven't seen Land of Milk and Honey, the 1971 documentary that flopped critically and commercially and ended Etaix's filmmaking career (for a while, anyway). Among many other acting gigs, he's appeared in The Day the Clown Cried (1972), Jerry Lewis's infamous and never-released Holocaust drama; Micmacs (2009), a misbegotten antiwar comedy by Amelie director Jean-Pierre Jeunet; and Aki Kaurismaki's well-received Le Havre (2011). Almost 84 years old, Etaix is finally beginning to get the aging master treatment, and he sure as hell deserves it. This guy is the real item.

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