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Pierre Étaix Profile

Not every rediscovered filmmaker is a great filmmaker, but sometimes it's hard to fathom why a particular director has sunk out of sight over the years, consigned to oblivion by the short memories of moviegoers, critics, and even film historians. This fate befell French auteur Pierre Étaix, a triple-threat cineaste - he generally wrote, directed, and starred in his movies - with an amply demonstrated gift for comic creation on the screen, on the stage, and under the big tent of the traveling circus. His pictures range across the whole spectrum of comedy and farce, from broad slapstick and clowning to subtle humor with a psychological edge; and while comedy remained his genre of choice, his versatility extended to documentary as well.

Étaix's finest films are as flat-out entertaining as most pictures by far more famous directors. So why is he so little known? A probable reason is that his filmmaking career flourished mainly during a ten-year stretch of breakneck creativity that started with the short comedy Rupture in 1961 and ended with the feature documentary Land of Milk and Honey a decade later. More than fifteen years then elapsed before he returned to the director's chair with The Gentleman Is Getting On, which he wrote as a (very popular) play and then adapted as a TV movie in 1987. Étaix stayed busy with other activities during that long break, but fifteen years was more than enough time for new entertainers to take over the spotlight he'd relinquished.

Then too, French moviegoers tend to be extra picky about native-born comics - flocking to Jerry Lewis pictures, for instance, while allowing Étaix's early mentor Jacques Tati to wither and fade under the debts incurred by Playtime, his 1967 masterpiece. No wonder the influential critic Georges Sadoul welcomed Étaix's first feature by noting how rare it was to find a new French comic of such high quality. "Comedy is cinema's most difficult genre," he wrote. "Nothing demands more precision, research or clearer focus. For the last forty years and more...has French cinema had any genuine comic authors? Many fine actors, certainly, but very few authors."

On top of all this, a tangle of legalities kept Étaix's films out of the television and home-video markets, cutting their visibility close to zero. Now most have been restored and placed back into circulation, allowing an overdue comeback for a comic artist who couldn't be more deserving.

Étaix was born in central France in 1928. He developed an early fascination with circuses and clowning, and got acquainted with screen comedy by watching movies his father showed on the family projector. He was a mighty disciplined youngster, according to film scholar Frank Bren, preparing for clownhood by studying gymnastics, dancing, and drawing while learning to play instruments as different as the piano, violin, and concertina. He started publishing cartoons in 1953, and the following year he moved to Paris, where he met Tati and became his apprentice, helping him prepare and shoot Mon Oncle (1958), his second Mr. Hulot film and his first color production. Étaix then met Robert Bresson, who admired his flair for magic tricks and gave him a small part in the spiritual thriller Pickpocket (1959).

Around this time Étaix did the illustrations for novelizations of two Tati films; both books were penned by a young writer named Jean-Claude Carrière, who shared Étaix's enthusiasm for screen comedy. When the producer Paul Claudon saw Étaix in a stage show and offered to help him make a movie, Étaix enlisted Carrière as an equal partner on the project. Together they wrote and directed Rupture, an 11-minute short that promptly won the international critics prize at a West German film festival. The duo then made Happy Anniversary, winner of the Academy Award for Best Live-Action Short of 1962.

Étaix and Carrière kept up their association throughout the 1960s, even as Carrière was building his own illustrious career - writing screenplays with the French director Louis Malle and the Spanish horror specialist Jesús Franco, and starting his collaboration with the Surrealist auteur Luis Buñuel, which lasted for almost twenty years. Something of a Surrealist himself, Carrière had a taste for the strange and marvelous that complemented Étaix's penchant for precision and detail.

Étaix completed his first feature, The Suitor, right after Happy Anniversary in 1962. He followed it with the ebullient Yo Yo in 1965, the episodic As Long as You've Got Your Health in 1966, and the romantic comedy Le Grand amour in 1969. He entered new territory with the 1971 documentary Land of Milk and Honey, filming and interviewing French citizens on their hopes and fears after the revolution of May 1968 had fizzled out.

Then came Étaix's long hiatus from the movies, but not from comedy. During the 1970s he returned to circus clowning, founded a circus school, and wrote and illustrated numerous books. He kept acting as well, appearing in such diverse pictures as Nagisa Oshima's Max mon amour (1986), Jean-Pierre Jeunet's Micmacs (2009), Aki Kaurismäki's Le Havre (2011), and even Jerry Lewis's missing-in-action movie The Day the Clown Cried, shot in 1972 and unreleased to this day.

Étaix's typical comic persona is one part discombobulated city dweller, one part dutiful spouse or lover, and one part romantic dreamer who can't help aspiring to something greater than the everyday life in which he finds himself, whether he's the lonely jillionaire of Yo Yo, the jilted boyfriend of Rupture, or the clone of Count Dracula in the horror-comedy segment of As Long as You've Got Your Health. As for cinematic style, it's a truism that comic actors love long shots, which display whole-body performances and keep pesky emotions at a distance; but Étaix the director never hesitates to put Étaix the actor into freely alternating wide shots and tight shots, with close-ups so intimate that the tiniest details of gesture and expression become charged with intimate meaning. His use of sound is scrupulous and exact, clearly influenced by the pinpoint precision of Tati's brilliant soundtracks.

An added bonus for cinephiles is the passion for movies that leads Étaix to pepper his work with sly - and not so sly - references to bygone classics. When you watch Yo Yo, for example, try to spot the nods - perhaps deliberate, perhaps happy accidents - to Chaplin's The Great Dictator (1940) and Fellini's La Strada (1954) and Lubitsch's To Be or Not to Be (1942) and Sturges's Sullivan's Travels (1941), not to mention the Buñuel-style foot fetishism in a scene that can only be described as a striptease for spats. Whether or not Étaix slipped these allusions in consciously, they're great fun to look for.

I doubt that Étaix will ever be as celebrated as Charles Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, or the classic French comedian Max Linder, but his return to prominence is a welcome development indeed, and I hope the success of a more recent French comedy - The Artist (2011), a silent-movie knockoff that won awards galore - will encourage viewers everywhere to pay heed. Pierre Étaix is alive and well, and his movies are back in the limelight. The gentleman is getting on, but his humor is as fresh and sparkling as ever.

by David Sterritt

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