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A filmmaker only recently rediscovered thanks to restorations of his key films and enthusiastic festival responses, Pierre Étaix is a talent completely overlooked by the first three decades of home video collectors. A disciple of sorts of Jacques Tati, Étaix cut his teeth working on that French legend's Mon Oncle (1958) and, in a similar mode, often starred, wrote, and directed his feature-length and short films. If fact, Étaix even won an Oscar® for his second short, Happy Anniversary (1962), and his sleek comedic sensibilities went on to inform five features.
Étaix also formed a long-running writing partnership with noted screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière, the prolific scribe of several late-period Luis Buñuel films (including The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, 1972) as well as The Tin Drum (1979) and The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988), among many others. The Étaix/Carrière team yielded some dazzling conceptual flourishes, many of which can be found in Yoyo (1965), arguably their most impressive achievement.
The story of Yoyo anticipates the time-leaping, format-switching techniques of Claude Lelouch as it spends its first third with a silent (apart from sound effects) B&W establishing tale and then bounces forward in time with the advent of sound, covering the dual stories of a father and son (both played by Étaix). First he plays a millionaire whose considerable riches can't buy him happiness, of course, at least until a circus arrives and brings with it the long-lost son whose mother had gone off to become a performer. After a stock market crash sends the lavish silent-era estate into a tailspin, the boy (Yoyo) grows up and begins to follow in his father's footsteps, trying to balance out the search of material wealth and the eternal quest for love.
The decision to mimic silent films with the entire opening sequence of Yoyo serves as a loving callback to the early cinema comics who strongly influenced Étaix, particularly Charlie Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy, and Harold Lloyd. The reliance on physical movement and graceful visual trickery with framing and props can be found in all of his features and shorts, with a surreal European flair that seemed to fit right at home in 1960s cinema. You'll especially see that here with the clever use of animals such as dogs and elephants as the mechanisms for sight gags so creative and unusual you'll wonder how this film could have flown under the radar for so long. Adding to the intoxicating atmosphere is the presence of real clowns, dancers, and circus performers, some of them captured here on film for the only time.
While Étaix remains the thespian centerpiece of the film, many film fans will recognize the beautiful actress who plays the central role of Isolina. A former Miss France, Claudine Auger had only appeared in a handful of films by 1965 (including an uncredited appearance in Jean Cocteau's Testament of Orpheus, 1960), but later that same year she broke through to international viewers as the lead James Bond girl, Domino, opposite Sean Connery in the massive hit Thunderball. From there she embarked on a steady string of films in Europe into the 1990s, balancing between prestige films like Jacques Deray's A Few Hours of Sunlight (1971) and Dino Risi's The Treasure of San Gennaro (1966) and wild cult items like Mario Bava's A Bay of Blood, Paolo Cavara's Black Belly of the Tarantula (both 1971), and the all-star actioner Summertime Killer (1972).
A critical success, Yoyo was hailed as "the kind of film that only comes along every ten years" by André Lafargue, who also praised it as "the best of Linder, Chaplin, while also being a deeply original work in its own right, with an exceptional rigor, drollery and tenderness." The film was the follow up to the first Étaix/Carrière feature, The Suitor (1962), and finds them refining their skills from their first two short films into the longer feature film medium. They followed this with three more: The anthology As Long as You've Got Your Health (1966), the romantic Le Grand Amour (1969), and the offbeat documentary Land of Milk and Honey (1971). Unfortunately they all became entangled in legal difficulties over the years that kept them out of the public eye, at least until a 2010 restoration effort was undertaken by the Fondation Technicolor and Fondation Groupama, who had earlier work on restoring Tati's films. When you watch Yoyo today, you may very well echo another of Lafargue's sentiments: "You will laugh. You will be moved. You will leave the cinema in a state of grace."
by Nathaniel Thompson