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All of ten and a half minutes, Pierre Etaix and Jean-Claude Carriere's Rupture (1961) is as unassuming as cineastical, post-Chaplin comedy shorts get. It's as simple in its narrative idea as a high school student lark, or, in fact, a Chaplin two-reeler from the teens. Etaix, a trim and nattily dressed young Parisian, jaunts through Paris traffic on his way to the post office, where he receives a perfumed letter. At home he eagerly sets to reading it, expecting proclamations of l'amour and instead getting a head shot of himself returned and torn in two. Etaix's nameless hero despondently but determinedly attempts to write an angry response, but his physical world will not cooperate: He suffers blank-faced tribulations just trying to corral his pen and inkwell. Scissors, stamps, necktie, desk, chair - all of it is in open revolt. Eventually, the room is a ruin and the slight fool's fate is sealed neatly by inopportune disregard for an open window.
It's a toast-dry, deft human cartoon, and at first blush recalls the mute comic tradition of Jacques Tati, which had been something of an elite French favorite flavor in the postwar era since Jour de Fete (1949). (Etaix had worked as Tati's assistant director in 1958, on Mon Oncle.) But Tati, of course, was a living reconstitution of the silent-comedy tradition that began properly with Chaplin's first shorts in 1914. Conspicuously speechless, Rupture is rife with Tatiesque sound effects, subtly ker-splatting every tiny pratfall and object failure, but it is for all intents and purposes a silent movie, which places it in a special and bewitching historical current. This is 1961 and the spring of the French New Wave, of course, the feverish cinephilic heyday of Godard, Truffaut, Rohmer, Rivette and Resnais, of Henri Langlois and the Cinematheque Francais, of Andre Bazin and Cahiers du Cinema (and its ideological rival magazine Positif), of the emergent auteur theory and an entire postwar explosion in passion for the art and history of cinema. A new generation had awakened to the medium's possibilities as an art form, not just a time-killing entertainment, and that wakefulness pertained to all film, from the beginnings of Lumiere, Edison, Melies, Griffith, and Feuillade through the silent era and to talkies and the rise of studio-dominated Hollywood before and since the war. These new cinephiles saw the first 60 years or so of movie history as all happening at once, right now - Chaplin and Von Stroheim and Murnau were just as pertinent and vibrant as contemporary voices like Ingmar Bergman, Michelangelo Antonioni and Budd Boetticher. Specifically, watching Rupture you can feel the moment when the work of Chaplin and Keaton, always considered in the mainstream as simply populist goofs, became seen as something more, as an essential contribution to modern human culture.
Thus, beginning your filmmaking career, as both Etaix and Carriere were doing, by crafting an incisive and crafty silent comedy that capitalized on deadpan and physical debacle, was not entirely nostalgic or even old-fashioned - it was a la prep, fresh and reverent and supercool. Etaix and Carriere know their comedy history, and their debut has a Keatonesque quickness to it, as well as distinctive moments of sleight of hand, as when the film's hapless hero bumps into a passerby and accidentally hooks his baguette, and when tiny setups - the gluing of the stamps onto the desk, for instance - happen literally off-frame. The briskness with which a fed-up Etaix opens a drawer, revealing a gun, picks it up, pops it open, extracts a cigarette from its handle and lights it, is stone-cold visual evidence of an attentive romance with film history.
Or two such romances, actually, and the subsequent careers of Etaix and Carriere all by themselves ensconce Rupture as a historical marker. The two made several subsequent shorts, including one, Heureux Anniversaire (1962), that won an Academy Award, and from there Etaix went on to make a series of beautiful comedies through the '60s, before making the fabulously curious documentary Land of Milk and Honey (1971) and then giving up cinema, albeit temporarily, to return to his earlier career as a cabaret comic and a circus clown. (Thanks to contractual cock-up, Etaix's films, including Rupture, have long been unavailable and unseen, a situation that changed with their restoration in 2011.)
Of course, Carriere went on to be one of the world's most accomplished and sophisticated screenwriters, penning dozens of densely literate and often wickedly modernist scripts for the like of Luis Bunuel, Andrzej Wajda, Nagisa Oshima, Louis Malle, Abbas Kiarostami, Volker Schlondorff, Milos Forman, Peter Brook, Philip Kaufman, and many more, and so stands as having been a uniquely pivotal figure in world cinema for the last half-century. (Bunuel even admitted that Carriere essentially wrote the former's memoir, My Last Sigh.) Rupture, then, is in many ways a first baby step, amid a stampede of baby steps since the late 1950s, that helped define the nature of cinema in the modern era, and its return to the narrative of the medium's history is long overdue.
By: Michael Atkinson