“Pierre Etaix is back, by popular demand,” announced Pamela Hutchinson in the Guardian last December. “Jerry Lewis acclaimed him as a genius and Terry Gilliam is a devoted fan, but until very recently, the 83-year-old Etaix, a comedian, magician and clown who Paris-Match called ‘the French Buster Keaton,’ was in danger of being forgotten entirely. His films are timeless treasures of whimsical, physical comedy, but copyright difficulties meant that his movies had not been distributed, let alone released on home video, for decades. Etaix’s signature on a disastrous distribution contract cast his films into oblivion, but 56,000 more, including those of Jean-Luc Godard, David Lynch and Woody Allen, on a petition in 2009, have rescued them for posterity. The end to this long-running legal dispute should be a cause for celebration among film fans, even though many, quite understandably, will never have seen one of his movies before.”
That’s begun to change, as Etaix and his newly restored films have toured Europe and the States, beginning in Cannes in 2010, hitting Los Angeles last November and Chicago this November. Today, they’re in New York, where Film Forum will be showcasing fresh 35mm prints through October 30. Hutchinson: “Etaix’s career in the cinema had auspicious beginnings: he crafted artwork and jokes for Jacques Tati’s Mon Oncle (1958) and demonstrated his sleight of hand in Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket (1959) before going on to direct and star in films of his own.”
Nicolas Rapold, who talks with Étaix and screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière for the New York Times, picks it up from there: “He created Le Rupture with Mr. Carrière, whom he had met in Tati’s office. Playing a nervous young man, Mr. Etaix tries to answer a Dear John letter but can barely get a handle on his desk and pen. Major recognition came soon. Their next short, Happy Anniversary (1962), about a young husband derailed by urban mishaps, garnered an Academy Award for best live-action short subject. Three features soon followed—The Suitor (1963); Yoyo (1965, the often surreal story of a bankrupt millionaire whose son becomes a clown); and Le Grand Amour (1969)—as well as a collection of sketches under the title As Long as You’re Healthy (1966). They share permutations on jokes and a preference for smooth execution over fast knockabout stunts. Visually they impress with choreographed camerawork and eye-catching framing.”
“You can certainly see the influence of Hulot’s creator in the three shorts and five features that Film Forum is showing during its 12-day tribute,” writes David Fear, reviewing Le Grand Amour in Time Out New York: “[Y]ou’ll spot the DNA of everybody from Tati to Tashlin and Tex Avery in Etaix’s 1969 feature, about a bored businessman smitten with a young, nubile secretary (Nicole Calfan). The plot is the kind of malaise-of-the-middle-aged–married-man hokum that would make Tom Ewell cringe. But the surreal comic tangents that Étaix and longtime cowriter Jean-Claude Carrière deliver are pure sow’s-ear silk, from a literalization of splitting joint possessions down the middle to an extended beds-as-cars sequence that predicts Michel Gondry’s whimsical-absurdist aesthetic.”
Back in the NYT, Manohla Dargis: “Written by Mr. Etaix and his frequent collaborator, the brilliant Jean-Claude Carrière, the film has a directness and comic purity that a child would enjoy, with double takes, physical bits of business and slapstick that show Mr. Etaix’s debt to great clowns of silent cinema like Buster Keaton. Sprinkled throughout, though, are involved passages that spin gloriously, surrealistically, off the narrative rails, explaining why Luis Buñuel hired Mr. Carrière to help write masterworks like Belle de Jour, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and That Obscure Object of Desire.”
The New Yorker‘s Richard Brody, “Etaix satirizes the marmoreal chill of the bourgeoisie, the small-town gossip mill, and, above all, the absurd yet agonized, blundering yet callous delusions of desire. His humor is as exquisitely intricate as it is anarchically devastating.”
Updates, 10/20: Richard Brody follows up on his review with a post at the Front Row: “His gags are reminiscent of Tati’s mechanized bodily ingenuity, but where Tati was a pointillistic ironist of tightly oscillating frustrations—and a romantic who saw natural passions stifled by rational modernity—Etaix is a well-mannered anarchist for whom passions themselves are corrupted and dubious. His humor is compassionate and tender but offers no exit—his wistful sweetness rapidly crystallizes to the sharp corners and cutting edges of exasperation, derision, and despair.”
Adrian Curry‘s posted an amazing collection of posters for Etaix’s films, adding that he “was bowled over to discover that not only had Etaix… been a close confidante of Jacques Tati in the mid 1950s, but had also designed the poster for Tati’s Mon Oncle and had come up with the iconic silhouette of M. Hulot.”
A clip from As Long as You’re Healthy (1966):
Updates, 10/22: Sarah Mankoff introduces a series of eleven clips at Film Comment.
Meantime, we have word from Janus Films that these films will indeed carry on touring throughout the States. Pierre Etaix: The Lost Laugh runs at the Gene Siskel Film Center from November 4 through 21, and further engagements will include the Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael, California (December 7 through 13) and the Northwest Film Forum in Seattle (February 6 through 21). Once the tour wraps, we can look forward to releases from Criterion.
Update, 11/7: “I try not to toss around words like revelatory, but I’d never heard of this guy before, and almost every one of his comedies in the series blew me away,” writes the Reader‘s J.R. Jones.