When a Circus Clown Moves from the Bright Spotlight to the Glow of Film: ‘Pierre Etaix’

Last October the Film Forum in New York City screened the five features and three shorts that were created by the French film director and comic actor, Pierre Étaix. (The series was partially cancelled due to Hurricane Sandy.) Film nerds were salivating. If you haven’t heard of Étaix you are not alone. His films have rarely been screened since their creation, due to a long legal fight with his distribution company, which has led to his movies being more or less scrubbed from film history. But the legal issues have finally been resolved, new digital masters were created from the damaged negatives in 2010, and after being shown at the Film Forum, they are now being released as a box set by Criterion.

The story of the film’s loss and rediscovery makes for a fascinating and attractive story. In addition to his work as a director, Étaix was also a skilled circus clown and draftsmen and worked for a time as a gag writer and set designer for Jacques Tati. Étaix is a close friend to Jerry Lewis. Most of his film’s scripts were co-written by Jean-Claude Carrière, a hugely important screenwriter in European film from the ‘60s until today. In the general enthusiasm at discovering a potentially forgotten master there has been a bit of over-adulation. Étaix is not Buster Keaton or Jacques Tati, and I don’t think any of his movies could be called masterpieces. But some of them are very good, they are imaginative and carefully composed, with a distinctive and accomplished vision that deserves rediscovery.

Criterion has done a wonderful job of putting together a collection that honors the films and gives background and context for Étaix’s work without being excessive. The first disc has a wonderful documentary, Pierre Étaix, un destin animé (2011), that gives an overview of his career, his influences and interests, and the primary role that the tradition of French clowning has played in all of his work. My only complaint with the set is that David Cairns essay in the accompanying booklet can be overly effusive in establishing Étaix’s “contradictory genius”, spending a paragraph praising the sound design in the first short “Rupture” (1961), when Étaix himself says that it was technically crude in his video introduction.

“Rupture”, about a jilted lover attempting to write a letter to his girlfriend and being foiled by a temperamental pen and other quotidian problems, contains elements that would be repeated in his later films: a simplistic scenario mined for maximum comic effect, with a deeply felt sadness trembling beneath the stony Keaton-esque surface. However, here the use of silent film-style gags has not become an organic part of the storytelling. The office furniture tends to fall apart and misfire with a crude slapstick force.

Étaix’s second short, “Happy Anniversary” (1962), was a huge leap forward in filmmaking ability and vision and won an Oscar for best short. Centering on a husband’s daylong attempts to buy anniversary gifts to bring home to his wife, Étaix builds a complex series of gags, using parallel action to connect the main character to his wife and various people he encounters on his journey, making particularly good use of mishaps involving cars.

Étaix’s first feature, The Suitor (1963), was originally conceived as a series of connected short films, though his producer made him focus on a central storyline. Again it’s a simple story, an absent-minded young man decides to give up his love of astronomy in order to try and get a girlfriend. But Étaix continues to sharply develop as a filmmaker. The visual stylizing and choreography of the gags is more complex, notably in a nightclub sequence, and there is a more prominent element of surrealism in the visuals.

The sound design is wonderfully conceived. Étaix used an approach, learned from Tati, of adding sound after shooting, in order to concentrate on the cinematography and add an additional comic element with unreal sound effects added later. The effect was clunky and rough in his shorts, but smoother here, with a new awareness of the comic potential for playing with the space and source of sound, as when the main character is wearing earplugs and we “hear” the scene from both his and the other character’s point of view.

With The Suitor, Étaix’s comic persona — combining Buster Keaton’s stoicism, Max Linder’s aristocratic grace, and Magritte’s Man in a Bowler Hat anonymity – is fully developed and given a subtle melancholic depth. There is a type of silly sweetness here that can also be found in Woody Allen’s early movies. At times Étaix can verge on preciousness, but there is always a darker threat, an eruption of catastrophe or absurdity, that threatens along the edges.

The Suitor was a financial success and allowed Étaix to pursue larger-scale ambitions for his follow-up. Inspired by Federico Fellini’s 8 ½ and influenced by the recent death of his father, he created Yoyo. The first half, shot in the style of a silent film, follows a bored, decadent millionaire (Étaix) who joins a former lover and their son in the circus after the stock market crash. The second half follows the grown son (now played by Étaix) as he becomes a famous clown named Yoyo and enters a Fellini-esque world of European high society.

The movie is inspired by the myriad potentialities of cinema and the influences of its history, at times bordering on experimentalism. A flashback to World War II is bracketed by a shot of circus horses gradually slowing down and then speeding back up again. A servant drinks the wine out of a still life painting. An elephant shows up at a party. The surrealism of these images is balanced by some lovely gags and sentimental moments. The millionaire walks his dog by sitting in his chauffeured car and holding the leash while the dog runs alongside it. We see the boy Yoyo leaving his father from his rocking point-of-view while looking out a circus wagon window.

Throughout, Étaix relies on the strength of these scenes and the visuals to hold the movie together instead of explicating a clear narrative or psychological arc for the characters. There are moments when the movie is overly derivative of Fellini, particularly in the “life is a circus” theme, but Étaix and his partners are so enthusiastically inspired it’s hard to hold it too hard against them.

Unfortunately Yoyo was not a success and the rejection of such a personal project left him bitter and disappointed and struggling for financing. His follow-up feature As Long As You’ve Got Your Health was originally released in 1966, but Étaix re-edited it for re-release in 1971. The movie is made up of four shorts, one was taken out and another added in ’71; all five are included in this set. In his video introduction Étaix does little to hide his unhappiness. “Things were very difficult”; “there was so little [money] that it suffered.”

The gags are on the more modestly scaled level of his earlier work. But there are some interesting ideas and moments. The short “Feeling Good” has some great long tracking shots inspired by Keaton and Tati. The Movies has a sequence where a man visits his friends’ apartment, where everyone talks and acts like they are in advertisements.

But there are some shockingly dark insinuations as well. “Feeling Good” compares a recreational campground to a prison of fun on par with a concentration camp. In the section titled “As Long as You’ve Got Your Health” a group of people struggles through life in the city while the sound of a jackhammer blares away; they all visit a doctor who urges them that “what I want you to do is relax.” There is a strong sense of alienation and anger with modern life. In Yoyo everything is lovingly precise, the gags are elegant. Here everything is falling apart, messy, and uncooperative.

It was another unhappy event, a long painful divorce, which inspired his follow-up Le Grand Amour, which might be his best film. The story is of a mid-life crisis, a man (Étaix) considers leading his wife for a young secretary. There is a newfound emphasis on dialogue and a more personalized approach to the lead character, even if the movie displays some rather piggish thoughts by its male characters. (Étaix’s lead female characters were often undeveloped and could be treated poorly.)

In his filmmaking, he achieves a wonderful balance between the conceptual ambitions of Yoyo with the narrative needs of his modest stories. It’s marked by three astounding set pieces: the man dreams he is traveling with the secretary in a world where cars have been replaced by moving beds, a succession of old women gossip about the man and instead of hearing what they say we see it acted out as a game of visual telephone, the man and his friend visualize the effects of the divorce by seeing everything in the apartment splitting in half.

For his final feature he took an even greater creative leap with an essayistic documentary about French society of the time, which he characterized as “a kind of ache, a cry of alarm.” Land of Milk and Honey (1971) was shot shortly after May 1968; Étaix had been hired to follow a promotional radio tour through summer vacation communities. It was a huge departure from his meticulously planned personal efforts and he struggled to figure out how to make the footage work for him, settling on a critique of a consumerism and materialism, portrayed as being blaring and suffocating.

I find the film to more adventurous in its techniques than in its ideas. There’s a conservative reactionary streak in all of Étaix’s films that here comes to an ugly fore. Étaix plays up the worst contestants in an amateur singing contest for cheap laughs in a matter reminiscent of American Idol. He repeatedly returns to grotesque close-ups of bulging body parts at the beach and at picnics, as if cellulite is an indictment of an ugly society. But it is the film itself that looks ugly. Besides a section exposing the unhappiness of tourists stuck in an overcrowded campground, he’ss unsympathetic and usually hostile to his documentary subjects. He forever romanticizes an older popular art form like the circus while slamming what could be modern forms of these same traditions as brutal and garish.

Étaix was heavily criticized for Land of Milk and Honey at the time. According to a video interview, at an early screening a studio head said, “You’re hateful! You’re mocking the masses!” Étaix insists that the movie “isn’t meanness” and seems to hold on to the idea that because it offended everybody, it must have been doing something right. It was pulled from the theaters after ten days and wasn’t shown again for 20 years. Étaix says, “My career was destroyed at that point.”

He essentially removed himself from the world of film, returning to circus clowning and founding a clown school. It’s disheartening to see the film career of such a generous entertainer end on such a sour note.

RATING 7 / 10


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