Pierre Etaix: The Forgotten Frenchman

pierre etaix 2

Running late again and battling traffic this morning, I found my thoughts turning to a film I saw a couple of years ago. ‘HEUREUX ANNIVERSAIRE’ is a short film starring the French comedian Pierre Étaix , which follows his frustrated attempts to rush home for an anniversary dinner with his wife. He must contend with rush hour Paris (the traffic is so gridlocked that the drivers read novels, polish their vehicles and play cards between occasional movements inching forward). While he struggles with driving home, parking, and picking up an anniversary  present, his wife tires of waiting, drinks all the wine and ends up comatose by the time he finally arrives home. Happy anniversary, indeed.

Although he is from a much later heyday than most of the comics featured here, Pierre Étaix fits right beside them. A disciple of classic silent comedy, he also found himself unfairly cast aside by history.  Most of the comedians featured on this site are largely forgotten because they are long dead, and many of their films do not exist anymore. In the case of  Étaix, neither of these statements are true.  He is still alive at 87, and his films, although admittedly few in number, all still exist. And yet, if he has been written about at all, it has been as a footnote to the career of Jacques Tati.

Originally pursuing the ambition to be a circus clown, Étaix was instead drawn into illustration and cabaret work. He met Jacques Tati, and was hired to work on designing and co-directing his 1958 film ‘MON ONCLE’. In 1961, he set out to work on his own in a series of shorts and features. Although his style contained elements of Tati, the most frequent stylistic comparison is to Buster Keaton, with whom Pierre shared a stoic demeanour as the dapper little man who fate confounds at every turn. However, he absorbed not just Keaton but all the great clowns, adding a leisurely Gallic twist to the comedy to make something uniquely his own. Étaix’ cinematic output was small – just 3 shorts and 5 features in the 1960s – but each was full of golden moments of witty visual comedy.

In old age, the silent clowns found themselves forgotten as their films disappeared from view due to forces beyond their control. In a bitterly ironic comparison to the clowns he so admired, the same fate, for years, fell Pierre Étaix. It is not nitrate decomposition or changes in taste that are to blame however, but an unpleasant saga of legal battles and rights issues. For 40 years, the rights to his classics were held by unsympathetic companies who treated them as assets and nothing more (a situation similar to, but much more prolonged than, Hallmark’s treatment of the Laurel and Hardy films in the USA.). The films disappeared from cinemas and TV. A fickle public soon forgets when they are not given a reason to remember, and with Pierre Étaix’ films in this legal purgatory, he soon slipped to footnote status in the textbook of comic history.

Finally, the murky clouds of litigation have cleared. Étaix  has been on the comeback trail, restoring his reputation with DVD releases and screenings at festivals, such as Cannes and the 2012 Bristol Slapstick festival.

At Slapstick, it was a thrill to see a great clown in the flesh. Sat hunched beside the screen, M Étaix was a small, lugubrious looking man with great, watery eyes. The comparisons to Keaton aren’t just stylistic; he shares Keaton’s passive stocism and  has the same kind of cheekbones that make the silver light from the cinema screen fall dramatically on his face as he watches himself. Watching the opening clip, an excerpt from ‘LE SOUPIRANT’ (1963), he seldom smiled whilst the rest of us rocked with laughter, and I had a twinge of worry that he would be a saddened and withdrawn man. However, in conversation there is nothing at all morose about him; in fact, he’s a complete charmer, who frequently breaks into animated bouts of mime accompanied by an infectious gap-toothed grin. His gift for visual business is undimmed by the years, and frequently he uses it to get over the language barrier; asked the reason for his films’ disappearance, he responds with a very funny, but obviously heartfelt mime of lawyers stuffing money in their pockets.  Similarly, while he holds Keaton as “a demi-God”, when asked who his favourite comedian of all is, his response was an absolutely pitch-perfect mime of Stan Laurel mannerisms.

pierre etaix bristol

Monsieur Étaix receives his award at the Slapstick festival in 2012

Both Laurel and Keaton’s slapstick helplessness with props are evident in ‘RUPTURE’, the first film he made. This short takes a simple premise, Pierre trying to write a reply to his girlfriend’s break-up letter, and extracts a great deal of comedy business from it as he struggles with broken pens, stubborn desk drawers and an uneven surface that his writing materials slide about on.  HEUREUX ANNIVERSAIRE takes these to even greater levels.

The dapper dignity that he tries to keep up in the face of slapstick calamity came to hallmark Étaix’ work and was, he says, inspired by a tremendously po-faced opera singer; “Something as trivial as losing a button would be catastrophe to him, and I find that idea very funny”. This character also fitted into natural, situational comedy. Unlike the bewildering modernity that Jacques Tati stranded his oddball character M. Hulot in, Pierre Étaix had all the material he needed in the day-to-day trials of love and life. After making 5 feature films (the last of which, LE GRAND AMOUR features a brilliant fantasy sequence in which beds replace cars on the roads), Étaix focussed his attentions on TV and setting up the French National Circus School.

Like almost everyone else, I’d almost never seen most of his work until that evening in Bristol, but I’ve since been working through the long overdue box set of his films. M. Étaix absolutely charmed the Bristol crowd, and is on his way to regaining his standing  as the third great clown of French Cinema, alongside Max Linder and Jacques Tati. There are lots of jewels amongst his films, which provide more out and out laughter than much of Tati’s work.

It is fitting, given all the comparisons that have been made between Étaix and Buster Keaton, to finish with a nod to Buster; In Rudi Blesh’s book ‘Keaton’, written during the twilight of its subject’s life, he poignantly describes Keaton’s race against time to restore his reputation.

“It is a timely restoration, with the public tired of stand up and one-line comedy and turning back eagerly to the visual gag and the timeless silent art of the mime. But it still is late, late evening for the mime himself. His race with time quickens.”

Pierre Étaix today finds himself in the same circumstances, and, in his 88th year, the same race against time. Already, though, the films of this sweet, humble and quietly brilliant man are beginning to be seen again and earn the praise and following they should have had for the last 45 years. They are wonderfully creative visual comedies. Don’t miss a chance to see them; we owe it to him.

EDIT 15/10/16. After the paragraph cited above, Rudi Blesh had to update his biography with a poignant last sentence noting Keaton’s passing. Unfortunately, today the same is necessary for Pierre Etaix. It is at least of some consolation that he got to see his reputation restored, but deeply sad that perhaps the last truly visual film clown has left us. Sleep well, Pierre, and thanks for the laughs.

pierre keaton

Étaix is also a talented artist, as evidenced by this lovely, minimalist Keaton piece.

Pierre’s films haven’t made it to DVD in the UK, but are available subtitled on this American release, or in their original French versions.

This article by Matthew Ross has been adapted from one included in issue 3 of The Lost Laugh Magazine

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2 comments

  1. Hi Matt, just to say that I’ve had this fantastic box set for a few years now …..well worth the wait ….. A true performer with a brilliant sense of timing , a true comic genius !!!

    Liked by 1 person

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