Etaix's performance in The Suitor has been likened to the best of Buster Keaton, and there's indeed some similarity between Keaton's superbly balanced minimalism - he was "the great equilibrist," in critic Gilberto Perez's memorable phrase - and Etaix's unflappable savoir faire, which is never more unflappable than when lunacy is erupting all around him. But in the end Etaix is unique and inimitable, a comic who absorbed many influences into a style utterly his own.
The suitor in The Suitor is Pierre, a smart young man with science on his mind. Accordingly, the movie opens with an unofficial homage to Georges Méliès, the trick-film pioneer who became the first superstar French filmmaker more than a century ago. Sci-fi paintings of distant stars and planetary landscapes fill the screen, and then we see what appears to be a rocket moving toward the sky amid clouds of vapor - until the camera pulls back, revealing the faux spacecraft to be nothing more exotic than Pierre's shiny pen, wreathed with smoke from the cigarette in his other hand. We look over his shoulder as he peers into his research notebook and finds the page he's looking for, which provides a clue to his character. On one side of the page is a sketch of a bikini-clad woman, but it's the reverse side that Pierre uses for a pinup, showing a statistical graph that's as angular as the bathing beauty is curvaceous. With priorities like this, could Pierre ever be successful as a suitor?
This certainly has his mother worried. Sitting her husband down for a tête-à-tête in their comfy haut-bourgeois parlor, she instructs him to fulfill his fatherly duty and have a candid talk with their romantically reluctant son. Papa stammers out the message, and the winds of fate confirm it by blowing the bikini-draped pinup off the wall and into Pierre's lap. It seems that wedding bells must chime, if only to give him enough peace from his parents to get his science projects done. Turning his attention to marriage, he overturns his desk, rips up his scientific charts, inspects a topless female statue that's been stowed behind his book piles, and brushes up his gentlemanly skills, squiring an imaginary partner around his study. Then he heads for downtown Paris in search of a prospective bride.
All of this happens in the film's first twenty minutes, along with a series of terrifically creative gag routines. Etaix never keeps all the jokes for himself, and one of the first crazy-funny sequences in The Suitor happens when Pierre's father makes a drink while smoking a pipe, turning seemingly simple actions into a miniature ballet of idiosyncratic gestures. Another gem is a string of mishaps triggered by Pierre's earplugs, which block off even the loudest noises (and may have influenced Claude Chabrol's memorable short La Muette in the 1965 omnibus movie Six in Paris). As always, Etaix's use of sound is as exact in its timing and pitch-perfect in its texture as one would expect from a filmmaker who had the comic genius Jacques Tati as a mentor.
The early scenes also introduce a tantalizing subplot. A beautiful Swedish woman named Ilka - apparently an au pair, although that's never spelled out - lives with Pierre's family. She's the first woman Pierre proposes to, but she speaks hardly a word of French, so his request goes unheeded. Why doesn't he keep wooing this lovely woman, who has a quiet manner, silky blonde hair, and a talent for the piano? Perhaps because he's too much of a space-minded scientist to recognize a godsend right under his nose. Or maybe it's just because there'd be no movie if his search were so readily resolved.
Whatever the reason, Pierre goes on overlooking Ilka, getting involved instead with a woman he meets in a Parisian nightspot - a gregarious, uproarious party animal who drinks too much, laughs too loud, and eventually passes out in Pierre's company, leading to considerable embarrassment. He quickly finds a more suitable lady friend, but then falls totally, desperately in love with Stella, a semi-sultry chanteuse he sees by chance on a TV show. Soon he's wandering through Paris in a daze, so eager to be near his newfound flame that he steals a life-size picture of her from the theater where she's singing and plasters his study walls with innumerable copies of her photo.
Many gag routines later, Pierre finally gains entrée to Stella's dressing room, only to discover that contrary to appearances, she's old enough to be his mother! He falls out of love as instantly as he fell into it, and morosely goes back home. Ilka is packing for her return to Sweden, but - surprise! - she's been studying up on French, and knows just enough words to communicate a bit. The story's conclusion is sweet, funny, and heartwarming without a hint of sentimentality or forced emotion. It is Etaix at his finest, and that is very, very fine.
As with most of his early films, Etaix wrote the screenplay for The Suitor with Jean-Claude Carrière, who started his career with Etaix's first short comedies and would soon commence his two-decade collaboration with Spanish director Luis Buñuel, the only surrealist filmmaker greater than David Lynch (who's also an Etaix admirer, incidentally). Carrière's contributions probably account for some of the dreamlike (il)logic in The Suitor, and additional droll touches come from the marvelous supporting cast - most notably France Arnell as Stella the singer, Claude Massot and Denise Péronne as Pierre's parents, Laurence Lignères as a neighbor, and Karin Vesely as Ilka the au pair.
But most of the credit clearly goes to Etaix for organizing his colleagues, orchestrating the material, and guiding the production of a comedy poised perfectly between outright slapstick and nuanced romantic fun. C'est si bon!
Director: Pierre Etaix
Producer: Paul Claudon
Screenplay: Pierre Etaix and Jean-Claude Carrière
Cinematographer: Pierre Levent
Film Editing: Pierre Gillette
Production Design: Raymond Tournon
Music: Jean Paillaud
With: France Arnell (Stella), Pierre Étaix (Pierre), Laurence Lignères (Neighbor), Claude Massot (Father), Denise Peronne (Mother), Karin Vesely (Ilka), Petit Bobo (Stage Manager), Lucien Frégis (Painter), Patrice Laffont (Stella's Son), Kim Lokay (Bodyguard)
by David Sterritt