When asked why he was making his first visit to New York City, Pierre Étaix smiled broadly.
“It’s never too late,” the 83-year-old actor/director said, as the capacity crowd at Film Forum signaled their enthusiastic agreement.
Still vibrant and playful, the French filmmaker appeared at the downtown Manhattan revival house on Friday night after a screening of LE GRAND AMOUR, a delightful 1969 comedy in which he stars and directs – also making its much belated New York debut. The event marked the launch of a 12-day Étaix retrospective at Film Forum: four features; three shorts; and one documentary, all produced between 1961 and 1971. Unseen for decades due to rights issues, Étaix’s movies have recently been restored and will be touring nationwide in new 35 mm prints from Janus Films.
A native of Roanne, France, Étaix began his career as an illustrator, clown and cabaret performer in Paris, before breaking into film with the legendary Jacques Tati. He served as an assistant director and gag man on Tati’s 1958 comedy MON ONCLE, and also drew the cartoon silhouette that would become the trademark for the beloved Monsieur Hulot character. Étaix’s first film HEUREUX ANNIVERSAIRE (HAPPY ANNIVERSARY), which plays on a double bill with LE GRAND AMOUR through Thursday, October 25 at Film Forum, was awarded the Oscar for best live action short subject in 1963. Shot in black and white and jam-packed with hilarious visual set pieces, the film clearly demonstrates the extent to which Silent Era comedy impacted Étaix’s sensibility.
“For me the best cinema was the cinema from the beginning of the last century, because it was the most pure form of cinema,” he told me, through an interpreter, in a post-screening Q&A. “Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy, Harry Langdon, Harold Lloyd, they were very much my inspiration.”
With his athletic frame and deadpan demeanor, Étaix’s nervous husband in HEUREUX ANNIVERSAIRE is most analogous to The Great Stone Face. Remove the 1960s fashions, automobiles and architecture, and this film could just as easily have been produced by Buster Keaton Productions forty years earlier. The only difference, of course, is sound, which Étaix uses almost entirely as a textural element in service of the comedy. There’s a smattering of dialogue but, as in the silent-esque Hulot films, it’s just another sound effect, rather than as delivery mechanism for plot.
LE GRAND AMOUR, Étaix’s final(?) full-length narrative film, finds the comic in the role of a young businessman, a free spirit caught inextricably in the humdrum machinery of traditional life. A pretty young secretary distracts him from his Mrs. (Annie Fratellini, his real life wife until her death in 1997), and ignites a fantasy life that manifests in an unforgettablely impressionistic sequence with motorized beds. The film makes greater use of dialogue than HEUREUX ANNIVERSAIRE, but it still has the spirit and structure of a silent comedy. Long stretches are entirely dialogue free, and sound is again used primarily as an element of the comedy, with cracking nuts, ticking clocks, squeaky shoes, a hydraulic drill, and characters humming the background music. All of the performances are remarkably physical, and the actors routinely multi-task with amusing business while delivering dialogue.
“There are six circus artists in LE GRAND AMOUR ,” Étaix told the Film Forum audience. “(American actors) are not capable of reading a text and doing an action at the same time. Only people who have been in the circus or done acrobatics or danced are capable of doing things at the same time. They’re the best.”
All of the films in the series are collaborations with producer and screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière, best known for his work with director Luis Buñuel on films like BELLE DU JOUR (1967) and THE DISCREET CHARM OF THE BOURGEOISIE (1972). Étaix spoke enthusiastically of his former partner, with whom he shares the Academy Award for HEUREUX ANNIVERSAIRE.
“In the Golden Age of the silent film there were 15 or 16 gag men,” he said. “(In these films) it was just the two of us. He has an extraordinary sense of comedy because he is a very good observer.”
He added: “When we see, for example, a film by Buster Keaton, you can observe everything in that scene, because everything in that scene is interesting. Today, films seem to be made very hastily; we don’t even realize what we’re seeing anymore, because it goes so quickly.”
Pacing is key to Étaix’s comedy, and the performers – not the director or editor – drive the pace. As in the driving bed scene, the laughs are derived from the inventive physical choreography within the frame, rather than the cutting. It’s impossible to watch this sequence and not do an on-the-spot visual comparison to the climax of Buster Keaton’s STEAMBOAT BILL, JR. (1924). And this is a comparison that Étaix himself would likely welcome.
“I adore them, and I still do, because they lived their life being happy and I just try to imitate them,” the octogenarian said with a youthful gleam in his eye. “When I hear spectators laugh, that’s what makes me happy. For me, that is what is most important in the world.”
Watch an unrestored transfer of HEUREUX ANNIVERSAIRE here.
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