Imagine stepping into a time machine and listening to Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton discuss their films. Last week, hundreds of people had the privilege of sharing an evening with a living master of screen comedy, 82-year-old Pierre Étaix, at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Many of them had never seen his work before, but they came away fans and converts. I was delighted to host the evening, which included his Academy Award-winning 1962 short ‘Happy Anniversary’ and the 1969 feature ‘Le Grand Amour’/’The Great Love’.
The spry octogenarian charmed his audience (with the help of Geneviève Bujold, who served as interpreter) as we discussed his career and approach to comedy. His hero was, and remains, Charlie Chaplin, with Stan Laurel running a close second. Asked if he thinks there is a tangible influence in his work, he answered that no one can emulate Chaplin. He did admit, however, that it was great fun to make ‘Yo Yo’, which begins as a silent film, in black & white. (I think it’s his finest work, and his performance reminds me of one of the unsung heroes of the silent era, Raymond Griffith.)
He learned about comedy by working in front of live audiences in the circus and cabarets. In the 1950s he was spotted by Jacques Tati, who took him on as a protégé and taught him about the filmmaking process as he prepared to shoot ‘Mon Oncle’. A talented artist, Étaix made hundreds of drawings to represent each sequence Tati devised…but he described his four-and-a-half year apprenticeship as hellish. He found Tati impossibly demanding and indecisive, although he admits he learned a lot. He also designed the poster for Mon Oncle and illustrated its novelization, which was penned by the man who became Etaix’s screenwriting partner, Jean-Claude Carrière.
We had two on-stage conversations, one following the short and the other following the feature. Both times he indicated that it was difficult for him to watch the films, not only because he sees himself on screen so much younger, but because he only sees their shortcomings, and wishes he could redo everything. He is justifiably proud of a surreal dream sequence in ‘Le Grand Amour’ in which his bed becomes a mode of transportation. I said I’d love to meet his property man and he recalled the “chef machiniste” who worked out the bed sequence and swore him to secrecy on how he pulled it off.
Etaix also warmed to my question about casting old circus cronies in supporting roles. They are especially notable in ‘Le Grand Amour’, a gallery of odd and funny-looking folks worthy of a Fellini movie. Overall, he felt he got his best results casting clowns and dancers. Étaix even married into a famous European circus family; after filming ‘Le Grand Amour’ he asked his leading lady, Annie Fratellini, to be his wife. (She died in 1997. His present wife Odile is a doctor of cinema, so, he said with a grin, “we have nothing to talk about.”)
The Sixties were his most fruitful decade, yielding two superb shorts and four feature films which he directed, co-wrote, and starred in: ‘The Suitor’, ‘Yo Yo’, ‘As Long as You’re Healthy’, and ‘Le Grand Amour’. He is every bit as worthy of praise and study as Tati, yet he is all but unknown today.
I hate to admit this, but even I was unfamiliar with Étaix’s work until earlier this year. Some friends of mine have fond memories of ‘Happy Anniversary’ and some of his early features, which earned acclaim from American critics. But a bad contract put his best work into legal limbo for more than thirty years, and the original negatives were not properly cared for. After painstaking restoration, his seminal works were released on DVD in France this year, and he was feted at the Cannes Film Festival. That inspired a follow-up tribute at the Telluride Film Festival over Labor Day Weekend and the Academy evening produced by Randy Haberkamp. (He can also be seen in a small but sweet part in Aki Kaurismäki’s ‘Le Havre’, which is now in theatrical release.)
To prepare for a tribute at the Telluride Film Festival, I went through that entire French DVD set and fell in love with Étaix, as filmmaker and comedian. The Criterion Collection is planning a U.S. release in 2012 which will finally bring his work to the kind of audience it deserves—although, as he remarked the other night, he made these films for audiences to see, and respond to, in a theater. It was clear that even at this point in his life, laughter remains a tonic to Pierre Étaix.