Le Grand Amour
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In Jennie Kermode's 2010 review of this film by writer-director-actor Pierre Étaix, she relates how one audience member asked after a screening, "Why is it that so many French films feature middle aged men falling in love with much younger women?" Kermode goes on to note that while the question may be a fair assessment of a longtime trend in that country, for Étaix, who has been working in movies in several capacities since 1959, it was something of a departure. Writing for the web site Eye for Film, Kermode notes that Étaix chose the subject because "he thinks it's a classic vaudeville theme, and also because of its simplicity--rather than telling a complex story, he wanted plenty of room for slapstick gags and generally inventive silliness. The result is a film that's a bit hit and miss but that, at its best, provokes uproarious laughter, and succeeds in charming throughout."
Starring in his own film as a character named Pierre, Étaix tells the story of a solidly married, successfully employed man who suddenly finds himself head over heels in lust with his young and beautiful new secretary and engaging in wild reveries that bring some spark back to his rather passionless life. The set-up gives Étaix ample opportunities for surreal fantasies (such as his bed whizzing down the road carrying him and the object of his affections), leaps forward and backward in time, absurdly mounting complications, and good-natured lampoons of the bourgeoisie. If it feels a bit familiar when you're watching it, bear this in mind: Étaix co-wrote the film (as he had at least a half dozen or so others, including the Academy Award-winning short Happy Anniversary, 1962) with Jean-Claude Carrière, Luis Bunuel's most frequent collaborator during his late career, most notably Carrière's script for the ultimate lampoon of the middle class, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972). Étaix has also been cited by Woody Allen as a major influence, and it's easy to spot some similarities there. The thing to remember, of course, is that Étaix was writing and directing several years before Allen began his directing career and first worked with Carrière three years before the writer began his collaboration with Bunuel on Diary of a Chambermaid (1964). And any echoes of Jacques Tati may be attributed to Étaix's work with the famed French actor-director on Mon Oncle (1958).
So with such impressive credentials and credits, and a high reputation in his country as filmmaker, nightclub performer, and professional clown, why do we know so little about Étaix on our shores? Tangled in a decades-long legal dispute with a distribution company, his body of work was kept from screens in his own country and abroad until a court ruling finally released them in 2010. After an extensive restoration process, they were finally picked up for distribution by Janus Films and presented for the first time in the U.S. in 2012, kicking off with a long overdue retrospective at New York's Film Forum. Audiences finally had the chance to experience (or rediscover, as the case may be) an artist hailed as a master of screen comedy and physical humor, praised by the likes of Jerry Lewis and François Truffaut, and lauded as a "hilarious, subversive, deadpan" revelation by documentarian Ken Burns, who acknowledged: "You can see in his work the seeds of everything we've laughed at during the last sixty-plus years."
At the time of the retrospective, Étaix also acknowledged his debt to the great silent movie clowns, particularly Buster Keaton, whose Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928) includes a runaway bed scene that compares to the one in Le Grand Amour.
Étaix, 83 at the time of the Film Forum celebration, appeared for the October 2012 screening of Le Grand Amour, the film's American premiere, explaining why he employed six circus artists in the cast. "(American actors) are not capable of reading a text and doing an action at the same time. Only people who have been in the circus or done acrobatics or danced are capable of doing things at the same time. They're the best." Four of those circus performers come from the famous Fratellini Family, including the woman who would become Étaix's wife the year of this film's first release, Annie Fratellini, playing his wife in this story. The two remained married until her death in 1997. Fratellini was France's first female circus clown and founder of the country's first circus school. The couple also appeared together in Federico Fellini's documentary The Clowns (1970).
Étaix was nominated for the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival for this picture.
Director: Pierre Étaix
Producer: Paul Claudon
Screenplay: Pierre Étaix, Jean-Claude Carrière
Cinematography: Jean Boffety
Editing: Henri Lanoë
Production Design: Daniel Louradour
Music: Claude Stieremans
Cast: Pierre Étaix (Pierre), Annie Fratellini (Florence), Nicole Calfan (Agnes), Alain Janey (Jacques), Ketty France (Mme. Girard).
by Rob Nixon