18 October 2016

Pierre Etaix (1928-2016)

French clown, actor and filmmaker Pierre Etaix has died aged 87. Etaix, who, was directly inspired by Max Linder and Buster Keaton, kept the tradition of slapstick alive. In the 1960s he made a series of acclaimed short- and feature-length films, many of them co-written by Jean-Claude Carrière. He won an Academy Award for his short film Heureux Anniversaire/Happy Anniversary (1962). Due to a legal dispute with a distribution company, these films were unavailable for three decades. As an actor, assistant director and gag writer, Étaix worked with Jacques Tati, Robert Bresson, Nagisa Oshima, Otar Iosseliani and Jerry Lewis.

Pierre Etaix (1928-2016)
Romanian collectors card. Photo: publicity still for Yoyo/Yo Yo (Pierre Etaix, 1965).

Clucking to a woman who is de-feathering a chicken

Pierre Etaix was born in 1928 in Roanne on the river Loire in central France. He decided very young to become a clown. Knowing how many skills were needed to fulfill his ambition, he studied the violin and piano, dancing and gymnastics, while teaching himself to play the xylophone, accordion, saxophone, mandolin, trumpet and concertina, as well as learning to become a magician.

He was also trained as a designer, and was introduced to the art of stained glass by Theodore Gerard Hanssen. After joining an amateur theatre group in Roanne, Etaix moved to Paris in 1953, working as an illustrator, cartoonist and cabaret performer.

In 1954, he met Jacques Tati and managed to get taken on by his hero’s company, Spectra Films, which had started the lengthy preproduction of Mon Oncle/My Uncle (Jacques Tati, 1958). During the almost four years it took to make the film, Etaix acted as gag writer, assistant director, storyboardist, gofer and uncredited player. He is seen briefly wheeling a bicycle and, with an imitation of clucking, startling a woman who is de-feathering a chicken. He also created the wonderful poster for the film.

Later, Etaix performed comedy routines at the Parisian music hall Bobino, and at the cabaret Les Trois Baudets in Pigalle. He also appeared in Robert Bresson’s classic Pickpocket (1959), as one of the accomplices of the title character, and in the army comedy Tire-au-flanc/The Army Game (Claude de Givray, François Truffaut, 1961).

Excerpt from Tant Qu’on a la Santé/As Long As You’re Healthy (1966). Source: Janusfilms (YouTube).

A Love for the comedy kings of Hollywood in the 1920s

In 1960, Pierre Etaix met the then-unknown writer Jean-Claude Carrière, and they became friends. They shared a love for the comedy kings of Hollywood in the 1920s. They first collaborated on ‘novelisations’ of Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot and Mon Oncle, written by Carrière and illustrated by Etaix.

Then they co-scripted and co-directed two shorts: Insomnie/Rupture (Pierre Etaix, 1961) and Heureux Anniversaire/Happy Anniversary (Pierre Etaix, 1962). The latter, which won the Oscar for best short film, had Etaix as a happily married man meeting a series of obstacles – mainly to do with traffic - as he desperately tries to get home in time for a celebratory dinner with his wife. Etaix, while paying homage to silent film comedy, paradoxically used sound effects as an important element in his work.

His first feature, Le Soupirant/The Suitor (Pierre Etaix, 1963), was a huge success at home and abroad, and established Etaix as ‘the French Buster Keaton’. Some of the plot – a shy and studious young man has to get married in a hurry – echoes that of Seven Chances (Buster Keaton, 1925), and a scene where Etaix attempts to carry a drunk young woman up to her apartment is almost a carbon copy of a similar one in Keaton’s Spite Marriage (Edward Sedgwick, 1929).

His next film, Yoyo/Yo Yo (Pierre Etaix, 1965), was his masterpiece. He plays a spoilt millionaire who loses everything in the Wall Street crash, then finds his former sweetheart, a circus horse rider, and their son Yoyo, a budding clown. Ronald Bergan in his excellent obituary of Etaix in The Guardian: “This enchanting nostalgic comedy romance, paying tribute to the tone and technique of silent cinema, has no dialogue for the first 30 minutes except for creative sound effects such as the creaking of the vast chateau doors. As both the adult Yoyo and the millionaire, Etaix brought the same control and sense of style to his performance as to his direction.”

He then directed two feature films Tant Qu’on a la Santé/As Long As You’re Healthy (Pierre Etaix, 1966) and Le Grand Amour/The Great Love (Pierre Etaix, 1969), which he co-authored with Jean-Claude Carrière. Tant Qu’on a la Santé looked at the absurdity of modern life. In a series of comic set pieces, Etaix played a serious-minded young man harassed wherever he goes – in the city crowds and traffic, at the doctor’s surgery, on a camping site and even on a desert island. Le Grand Amour was Etaix’s first film in colour, about a middle-aged married man who falls for a much younger woman. The wife was played by Annie Fratellini, one of the few female circus clowns in France, whom Etaix married in 1969.

Dream scene from Le Grand Amour/The Great Love (1969). Source: JLoveBirch (YouTube).

Federico Fellini

Both Pierre Etaix and Annie Fratellini were featured in Federico Fellini’s semi-documentary I clowns/The Clowns (1970) about the human fascination with clowns and circuses. In 1974, Fratellini and her husband founded France's first circus school.

Etaix’s last feature was the documentary Pays de Cocagne/Land of Milk and Honey (Pierre Etaix, 1971). Ronald Bergan: “a penetrating, rather cruel and satirical look at the French on holiday and their reactions to topical questions put to them by a hidden inquisitor (Etaix). The film, which was edited down from six hours of material to 80 minutes, was both a commercial and a critical failure, and Etaix was seldom seen on the big or small screen thereafter. In fact, he ‘vanished’ for some years when he and Fratellini joined the touring Pinder Circus as clowns.”

In 1972, Jerry Lewis cast the comedian in his unreleased film drama The Day the Clown Cried. Later, Etaix wrote a play, L’Age de Monsieur est Avancé (The Gentleman is Getting On), which was successfully staged in the autumn of 1985 at the Comédie des Champs-Elysées theatre in Paris. Etaix filmed it for television two years later in which he played the lead role opposite Nicole Calfan and Jean Carmet.

Among his later film appearances were roles as a detective in Nagisa Oshima’s Max Mon Amour (1986) and as a friend of Henry Miller (Fred Ward) in Henry and June (Philip Kaufman, 1990). He also appeared in Jardins en Automne/Gardens in Autumn (2006), Chantrapas (2010) and Winter Song (2015), all directed by the Tati and Etaix admirer Otar Iosseliani, the exiled Georgian in Paris. Etaix also played a role in Aki Kaurismäki’s Le Havre (2011).

Because of complex contractual problems, his old films could not been shown for three decades – either in cinemas, on television or on DVD. At last, in 2010, after more than 50,000 people – including Woody Allen, David Lynch, Charlotte Rampling and Jean-Luc Godard – had signed a petition, the films could be restored and rereleased. They were a revelation to a younger generation. In the same year, he toured France with a show inspired by music hall, Miousik Papillon.

In January 2013, the French government promoted Etaix to the rank of Commandeur des Arts et des Lettres. In June 2013 he received the Grand Prize of the SACD (Society of Authors and Composers of Dramatic) for his entire career. Annie Fratellini has died of cancer in 1997. Pierre Etaix is survived by their son, Marc, and by his second wife, Odile (nee Crépin), a former jazz singer. Le Monde reports that the cause of his death was an intestinal infection.

James Travers at Films de France: “The precise, gentle comedy of Pierre Etaix invites not just admiration, but also genuine affection. Sweet but never mawkish, acerbic but never cruel, his films are packed with as much humanity as humour, and will move you as much as they will make you laugh.”

American trailer for the 2012-2013 retrospective of the films of Pierre Étaix. Source: Janusfilms (YouTube).

Sources: Ronald Bergan (The Guardian), James Travers (Films de France), Ignatiy Vishnevetsky (A.V. Club), Le Monde (French), Wikipedia (French and English), and IMDb.

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