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Directed by Pierre Etaix
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Happy Anniversary (1962)

Happy Anniversary (1962) is a short movie, but Pierre Étaix took a long time preparing for it. Still shy of thirty years old when he started work on it in 1962, he had been a professional clown in his native France for almost twenty years, and as a teenage member of an amateur theatrical group he had done everything from building scenery to writing skits. More recently he had worked for Jacques Tati, the legendary comic filmmaker, and his physical dexterity had landed him a small role in Robert Bresson's amazing Pickpocket (1959).

With so much experience behind him, you'd think Étaix would have been brimming with confidence when a producer gave him the chance to make a short comedy of his own. But his earlier ventures had taught him the value of discipline and planning, and he decided to make a couple of practice movies first. Here he had the good fortune to team up with a young writer named Jean-Claude Carrière, also a Tati associate. Together they wrote and directed Rupture (1961), starring Étaix as a spurned lover writing a letter in hopes of winning back his girlfriend. The 11-minute farce earned prizes at two film festivals in neighboring West Germany, by which time Étaix and Carrière were already at work on Happy Anniversary, a little bit longer and a lot more elaborate.

Fittingly for a film in which action and character trump logic and psychology, the plot of Happy Anniversary is exquisitely simple. Étaix plays a devoted Husband rushing home from the office to commemorate his wedding anniversary with his lovely Wife, who has prepared a special dinner in honor of the occasion. But you guessed it, everything goes wrong, starting with a traffic jam and ending with one of the most unfestive festivity scenes you're likely to see. Saying much more would spoil the film's surprises, of which there are a remarkable number packed into its 15-minute running time. What can't be spoiled are the pulsing energy and infectious rhythm of the film, which gains unstoppable momentum before reaching a conclusion that's as inevitable as it is hilarious.

Étaix's performance is the movie's center of gravity, and he sets the tone from his first moments on the screen. The opening shots show the Wife, delightfully played by Laurence Lignières, laying out an immaculate table setting complete with crusty French bread, a bottle of good wine, and a neatly wrapped anniversary gift tucked into her spouse's napkin. Then we meet the Husband, dashing down the sidewalk in a more expansive version of the same impeccably timed choreography. Carrying a bulky box of flowers, he scurries to his car, only to find it completely boxed in by vehicles parked behind and in front of it. Escaping this dilemma, he drives onto a street so clogged with traffic that people are passing the time with other pursuits - workmen are lunching in their truck, a guy in a sports car is reading a novel, an executive is dictating letters to a secretary in the back seat.

And so it goes as the Husband encounters one delay or obstruction after another, often involving unexpected strangers - disgruntled furniture movers, a traveler who mistakes the Husband's car for a taxi, a man rousted from a barber chair halfway through a shave. Meanwhile the Wife is all alone, clueless about her spouse's whereabouts, and increasingly tantalized by the goodies she's lovingly arrayed on the table.

Short films have gotten short shrift from moviegoers ever since feature-length attractions became the norm back in the 1910s. Yet however easy it is to overlook and undervalue them, their modest dimensions have at least one built-in advantage over their longer counterparts: while even the greatest feature film is bound to have shortcomings and imperfections, it's possible for a one- or two-reeler to be almost flawless if it's conceptualized and crafted with scrupulous care by inspired artists. I'm not claiming that Happy Anniversary is a perfect movie, but it comes pretty close in its own humble way, and that's a rare thing in the rough-and-tumble world of commercial film.

It's tempting to think of Étaix as the sole auteur of Happy Anniversary, since he's the star as well as codirector and coauthor of the picture. But any assessment of Étaix's early films must take full account of Carrière's contributions, which blend seamlessly with Étaix's style while carrying strong hints of the distinctive sensibility he would soon develop in his own career, especially during his many collaborations with Luis Buñuel, the grand master of surrealist cinema. There's more than a touch of surrealistic dreaminess to Happy Anniversary, where cars conspire against their owners, no box or suitcase is safe from getting crushed, and impossible coincidences abound. The same is true in comedies by the likes of Buster Keaton and Jerry Lewis, but when it comes to capturing the craziness of modern cities, Happy Anniversary can compete with any of them.

Étaix and Carrière scored their second consecutive hit with Happy Anniversary, known as Heureux Anniversaire in France, winning the Academy Award for Best Live-Action Short Subject and a BAFTA Award for best short film. Variety praised the picture for showcasing Étaix's "personal comic filmic flair," and it holds up marvelously today as an ideal introduction to Étaix's talents and a foretaste of the sophisticated humor that would distinguish the features he made soon afterward. It's also a superbly crafted comic miniature in its own right, encapsulating the richness of Étaix's wit in a crisp quarter-hour of high-octane fun.

Directors: Pierre Etaix and Jean-Claude Carrière
Producer: Paul Claudon
Screenplay: Pierre Etaix and Jean-Claude Carrière
Cinematographer: Pierre Levent
Film Editing: Eva Zora, Andrée Werlin
Music: Claude Stieremans
With: Pierre Etaix (the Husband), Laurence Lignières (the Wife), Loriot, Nono Zammit, Lucien Fregis, Ican Paillaud, Robert Blome
BW-15m.

by David Sterritt
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