Prodigal Clown: The Subtle Genius Of Pierre Étaix

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Pierre Étaix is oft-cited as ‘the funniest man you’ve never heard of’, ‘the Gallic Buster Keaton’ or ‘the forgotten comic’ but there is so much more to him than an easily digestible strapline. The delight, craftsmanship and unique skill which is displayed within his work is truly astonishing, being both simultaneously cerebral and hilarious.

His movies are rich in offbeat pleasures and contain admirable filmmaking abilities but, even more importantly, they remain inarguably hilarious to this day. Drawing inspiration from a wide range of entertainment methods and combining it with an effortlessly cool aesthetic (location shoots in France during in the 1960s were a more perfect a cinematic location than could ever be dreamt up or constructed by a studio), Étaix did much more than simply pay homage to the great stars of the silent era, he took their legacies and evolved them.

Born in Roanne, Loire, France in 1928, the music hall and cabaret star, writer, animator, illustrator, clown and filmmaker created some of the funniest movies of the ’60s, but his filmic successes were short lived and tarnished with a series of disasters which almost resulted in his entire filmography being buried forever. Étaix’s work never received the adulation which it so duly deserved, due to a legal issue which kept his films from being widely released for almost 40 years. An unfortunate contract placed them in limbo, and it looked for many years as if they would be condemned to perpetual obscurity.

Decades of battling with Gavroche Productions, a Parisian film company, reached a pinnacle in 2009, when cinematic luminaries such as David Lynch, Jean-Luc Godard and Woody Allen signed a petition along with 56,000 others, which called for Étaix’s films to be released. “It’s now or never. These films must be restored soon or they are at risk of rotting away.” Étaix told The Guardian at the time. A 1000-plus page legal document was produced and, after a lengthy and exhausting process, the creator was once again reunited with his work that had been languishing in bureaucratic purgatory for so long. 

According to The New York Times:

An out-of-court agreement was reached with help from the Groupama Gan Foundation for Cinema, which finances and promotes restorations, among other things, and the Technicolor Foundation for Cinema Heritage.

A restoration process began, and the films were painstakingly restored to their creator’s original vision; a challenging task given the decrepit nature of some of the film stock. A worldwide revival of appreciation was ignited, starting at the Cannes Film Festival in 2010, when Étaix’s movies were shown to an audience, most of whom were unfamiliar with his oeuvre. Shortly afterward, assisted by a Criterion release of his movies, Étaix generated more and more copy and focus as he was featured in The New Yorker and Sight & Sound. The world was paying attention, even if it was 50 years too late.

Étaix’s movies contain all the staples of absurdist masterpieces, drawing influence from the silent classics of Chaplin and Keaton, as well as Laurel and Hardy and Jacques Tati, who assisted Étaix is getting his films off the ground. Tati, and particularly his 1958 production Mon Oncle, is what Étaix credits as his film school. Working as a storyboard artist and illustrator on Tati’s masterwork, Étaix also appeared in a small role in the feature, but it was what he learnt behind the camera which would propel him into a new and spectacular period of artistic productivity.

Over the course of his filmmaking career, Étaix made five features and three short films, one of which (Happy Anniversary / Heureux anniversaire) won an Academy Award in 1962.

In his debut feature, Le soupirant (The Suitor) (1962), Étaix stars as a young bachelor eager to find a bride and, in doing so, exposes the ridiculousness of modern courtship with his inimitable charm. Buster Keaton was a fan of the film and requested to meet its maker but, sadly, the connections were never made. It’s a shame to think of what could have been, had these two great minds been given an audience together.

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YoYo (1965) is a stunning feature of great ambition and scale, charting the representative means of cinematic entertainment (silent film through to television), whilst adapting their methods to fit a poignant and touching story of a lonely millionaire who finds joy and delight in the transient life of the circus, amongst whom he discovers his estranged family.

Tant qu’on a la santé (As Long as You’ve Got Your Health) (1966), is a collection of superb shorts which includes Insomnia, a hybrid of horror film imagery and witty dream sequences. It takes some wonderful pot shots at consumerism, assisted greatly by a fantastic performance from his regular co-star Alain Janey, as well as

The Feeling Good short, which was originally set to be included in Tant qu’on a la santé examines the ridiculousness of holiday camps (as Étaix makes daring comparisson with POW compounds) contains all of the wit and delight which one would find in a Buster Keaton or Harold Lloyd performance, but with a highly unique and memorable delivery which sets Étaix apart from the aforementioned and their contemporaries. As flattering as those comparisons may seem, let it be known that Étaix is very much an individual and groundbreaking artist who offers so much more than the collective influences which inspired him.

The examination of marriage and lust in Le Grand Amour (1969) is a heartwarming, occasionally surrealist tale of a man who feels somewhat enslaved by his marital state and falls in love with his teenage secretary, only to discover the folly and unsustainable nature of such fantasies. In one particularly outstanding scene, as Pierre (Étaix) speaks with his secretary Agnès (Nicole Calfan) and becomes visibly older at a ridiculous rate as he rambles on, exemplifying the true difficulties of cross-generational communication. Beds driving down streets, multiple brides and the most suffocating in-laws imaginable are all other parts of this sumptuous puzzle, which remains one of the strongest in his repertoire.

Land of Milk and Honey (1971) was a documentary with which Étaix cast a sardonic, but equally sentimental view over the French landscape, as he travelled through the countryside filming the bizarre regional practices which took place. This was not well received, with his humorous wit being taken as insulting, and resulted in an inability to acquire subsequent backing for films.

In what could have been his international breakout, he worked with Jerry Lewis on The Day The Clown Cried, a film which has been subsequently lost, with Lewis refusing to discuss it to this day.

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During a rare visit to the UK, Étaix was the recipient of the Aardman Award at Bristol’s Slapstick Festival in 2012, where he spoke to Sir Christopher Frayling about his life and work. In an hour-long interview which was posted on Watershed, the French comic regaled a delighted audience on the formations of his career path. It all began when his father took him to the circus when he was a boy, and the young Pierre Étaix became enamoured with the clowns:

When I saw the clowns I was so enthusiastic that I told my grandfather ‘This is what I want to become later on’.”

Thankfully for the world, Étaix’s family were supportive of his ambitions and his passions never subsided. He saw a great deal of parallels between the worlds of silent film and the big top, noting the nuances of humor which existed in the repertoire of both the comic circus performer and the early cinema stars, whom he refers to as ‘master clowns’.

A self-effacing and humble presence, he brushes off comparisons with the international comic masterminds, and even refuses to be placed alongside his native contemporaries, who include fans of his work such as François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard. When it was put to him that he was part of the French Nouvelle Vague scene, he simply responds:

I was at the hollow of the New Wave.”

Far from it, for beneath the jovial surface of his work, there is a dark and powerful side to the cinema of Pierre Étaix. His caustic views on the commercialisation of mass culture were certainly not shadowed within his films, Land of Milk and Honey being a particular example. Whilst it’s an absolute pleasure to be able to relish his films so many years after they were released, it’s with a bittersweet air, as one wonders what he may have delivered in the interim.

About the Author

Colin McCracken
Colin J McCracken is an Irish author, screenwriter and journalist. You can find him as @colinjmccracken on twitter, or see colinjmccracken.com for a portfolio of work.

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