Pierre Etaix: The French comic genius you’ve never heard of

pierre etaix

There’s a scene in Pierre Etaix’s “Le Grand Amour” where a middle-aged businessman is lying in bed. As he begins to slip into dreamland, his bed glides out of the bedroom and out of the house, and is soon zipping down a French country lane, the man riding in it serenely, like he was on a Sunday afternoon drive in his Peugeot.

That’s a funny scene, both clever and lyrical. But it was when the man passed another bed stalled out by the side of the road, its grease-stained owner looking perplexedly under the hood, that I know I was in the presence of a zany comic genius.

I had never heard of Etaix prior to the UW-Cinematheque’s announcement that it would show all five of his feature films (plus all his shorts) during its summer series, beginning with “Le Grand Amour” this Thursday, July 11 at 7 p.m. (All the Etaix films are free and will play at 4070 Vilas Hall, 821 University Ave.)  Even then, I was understandably more focused on the main Cinematheque series this summer, a tribute to Roger Ebert through the movies he loved.

But now that I’ve seen two of Etaix’s movies, “Le Grand Amour” and “The Suitor,” I’m excited. This is a master of movie comedy, someone who combines the physical antics of Buster Keaton with the visual absurdities of Monty Python and the social satire of Jacques Tati, along with a healthy dollop of humor all his own. Don’t miss these films.

Etaix made five films between 1963 and 1971 that went largely unseen for decades because they got tangled in an unwise distribution deal he couldn’t extract them from. Finally, last year, Etaix was able to get the films back and supervise their restoration, and after an arthouse revival tour from Janus Films last year, Criterion released a boxed set in April.

Before he got into filmmaking, Etaix was a clown and acrobat, and his first feature “The Suitor” (July 25, 7 p.m.) pays loving homage to his silent comedy heroes. The blankly handsome Etaix plays a Frenchman unlucky in love who, after striking out with one real woman after another, zeroes in on a singing star he sees on television. (In one sequence worthy of Chaplin, he absent-mindedly tries to make a cup of tea as he watches her, transfixed, pouring the milk in the sugar bowl and spreading jam on his empty plate.) When the action finally does move to a circus, we get a tour de force of Etaix’s comic skills on screen.

The hero in 1969’s “Le Grand Amour” should be less likable, but there’s something so elegant and engaging about Etaix’s befuddled screen presence that he somehow wins you over in the role of a mild-mannered businessman who pines for his beautiful young secretary. Part of the charm may be that the man is so befuddled that he poses no kind of romantic threat, and part may be how Etaix’s satirizes his obsession with a freewheeling cavalcade of  dream sequences and other surreal touches. By “Amour,” he had gotten more adept at using filmmaking techniques, and not just his antics wit in the frame, to get laughs; in one dinner scene between the man and his secretary, every time Etaix cuts to the man he looks progressively older, until he’s a doddering old geezer.

The other films in the series are Etaix’s personal favorite “Yoyo” (July 18), followed by a double bill of “As Long As You’re Healthy” and “The Land of Milk and Honey” on Aug. 1.  The latter was a departure for Etaix, a bold documentary satirizing French life. It was not received well by audiences or critics, and essentially ended his career as a filmmaker.

I couldn’t find any Ebert reviews of Etaix’s films, although I bet he would have loved them, and he included links to a couple of his shorts in his “Ebert Movie Club” newsletter. That the world is finally discovering these films within Etaix’s lifetime must be a gift for him; his gift to us is five nearly perfect comic gems.

4 thoughts on “Pierre Etaix: The French comic genius you’ve never heard of

  1. Pingback: What’s Playing, Madison? | LFR | Your #3 Source for WI Film

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