This past Friday we lost Pierre Étaix, one of the great comic filmmakers, and up until recently, was in danger of being completely forgotten. His entire film catalog, consisting of both short and feature length films made in the 1960s, were barred from distribution for decades due to legal problems. Luckily, Criterion issued his complete works in a lovely Blu-Ray package three years ago. It’s hard to think of a similar rescue from the abyss!
Many of the most famous film comedians are referred to as clowns, but Pierre Étaix actually had his comic apprenticeship in circuses. His elegant physical comedy must have its roots in the circus much as Buster Keaton’s does from the vaudeville circuit. Étaix worked as an apprentice to Jacques Tati. Pretty impressive comedy credentials. He even appeared in a small role in Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket, amazingly enough.
But it is his handful of feature-length and short films that will ensure his place next to Keaton and Chaplin in the comedy Pantheon. Like those two masters from the silent era, Étaix’s genius is all visual. The deadpan reactions are direct descendants of Keaton, the sweetness and kindness are direct descendants of Chaplin. His greatest works were created in collaboration with Jean-Claude Carrière, the screen writer/producer who went to to collaborate with Luis Buñuel on his late masterpieces.
I would suggest you start with the lovely, heartwarming Yoyo. This practically silent gem celebrates being yourself (in this case a circus performer) instead of being who you are forced to be (in this case, a phenomenally rich but lonely young man in a lovely mansion). The deus-ex-machina of a circus elephant is one of the memorable sight coups (I don’t want to demean it by calling it a sight-gag).
His last film, Land of Milk and Honey, did to his career what Peeping Tom did for the career of Michael Powell: put him on the outs with the money men by seemingly thumbing his nose at the bourgeois tastes of the audiences of 1971. This is a great shame, because judging from the genius of the few works we have, we can only lament what else we might have had over the forty-plus years since that film’s disastrous release.
So, please, do yourself and the late, great Pierre a favor and see as many of these delightful works as you can. Here follows a filmography swiped from Wikipedia:
- Insomnia (1961) Short unreleased
- Happy Anniversary (1962) Short
- The Suitor (1962)
- Yoyo (1965)
- As Long As You Have Your Health (1966)
- Le Grand Amour (1969)
- Land of Milk and Honey (1971) Documentary