"When I think of a great comic like Max Linder, who influenced Charlie Chaplin, I feel like I'm just the soles of their shoes. I'm so small."
Pierre Étaix is back! The French writer-director-star, a disciple of Tati but very much his own clown, has been released from a kind of purgatory in which his entire back-catalogue of films was unavailable to the public for decades, due to some impenetrable Dickensian legal wrangle: as he sees it, his life's work had been simply stolen.
Well, the good news is that the films, five features and a number of shorts, have now been liberated, and a seemingly rejuvenated Etaix is traveling the globe reintroducing them to the people. And what we see is not merely an adjunct to the work of Tati, but a distinctive contribution to the world of film comedy: with his dapper, man-about-town persona (not to mention the gap-toothed smile), Étaix is in the lineage of Max Linder, and his play with cinematic form and narrative clearly inspired the young Woody Allen with his "early, funny ones."
For example: in Le grand amour (1968), Étaix, in voice-over, takes us from his wedding day to a flashback recounting his first meeting with the woman now becoming his wife (Annie Fratellini). It was on the terrace of a cafe, he tells us, and we see the waiter arrive with his drink. No, come to think of it, I was inside, says the V.O., and we cut to the interior where the waiter arrives again. No, what am I saying, it was on the terrace: cut to the terrace. When Etaix changes his mind for the third time, the waiter, tired of continually laying out the same drink on alternating tables, tells him to make up his mind. Then the bride-to-be arrives, declares that it's too warm inside, and they relocated to the terrace again.
The above sequence occurs just a few minutes in, after some pleasant but conventional gags in church, and there's a sense of liberation all at once, which continues through the film as Étaix finds fresh ways to present traditional gags (even a pie in the face), and approaches to narrative which enlist the devices of surrealism and the verfremdungseffekt for comedy purposes. All in the service of a simple, adult story about a man who loves his wife.
"I never felt that I was an innovator in any way. I just always did what I liked to do."
Pierre the movie character has an apparently blissful existence, undercut right from the start by the revelation that he feels his life is out of his hands. (Twice in the film, once when meeting his prospective in-laws and once when his wife starts knitting, seeming to presage motherhood, we hear the offscreen roar of an out-of-control car: the front half of a metaphor, jutting into the film from elsewhere.) The opportunity for rebellion presents itself in the shapely form of a new secretary, and Pierre, now married for ten years, seems ready to commit a rash act... almost. Since Pierre lives up stairs from his in-laws, and works for his father-in-law's firm, he could be about to lose his marriage, home and career all at once (we've already seen that this is a small provincial town where gossip spreads like an airborne virus), so beneath the comedy there's a note of peril...
The Woody Allen connection comes from the way Etaix uses subjective effects to make character points in the form of jokes. When Étaix finally plucks up the courage to take his secretary to dinner, he finds himself droning on helplessly about business affairs. Her P.O.V. reveals him as suddenly more middle-aged than he is. Then again, older yet. Ancient, in fact, with white whiskers. A final P.O.V. reveals only an empty chair. The obvious comparison is with the moment in Annie Hall when the anti-semitic Grammy Hall sees Woody Allen as an Orthodox Rabbi, but here the gag enlists sympathy for the bored girl, something which seems a staple of Etaix's humor, which is never cruel. A joke about him accidentally proposing romance to his elderly, homely, retiring secretary instead of the luscious new one, looks set to end in a cruel punchline, but Étaix is more comfortable when the joke is on him, so our feelings, and the lady's, are spared. It's surprising how progressive the film is for a French mainstream movie from 1968. Godard was still using mini-skirted models as set decoration. Étaix's story is set in the 50s, so the women are all either housewives or secretaries, but they're still self-motivated, rounded human beings.
"I had a friend who lived near a road with very heavy traffic, who told me 'Every night when I go to bed, I feel like I'm driving a car.' And that idea did something to me and led to the image of the beds on the roads. Oddly enough, funny ideas always come from something real."
Another pleasure of the film is the disruption of reality (Étaix has also worked with Fellini, in I Clowns). An extended dream sequence sees Etaix taking off in his bed, gliding silently down country roads, and picking up his secretary, a sexy hitch-hiker in a Baby Doll nightie. The image of a bed outside was a familiar one even in 1968 (The Knack had already been borrowed from numerous times), but the gags spun off from it are delightful. Étaix floats past a broken-down bed at the side of the road: a fat man in a nightshirt emerges from under its chassis, his hands smeared with oil. Another bed, crumpled and burned-out, is seen propped against a tree. Different forms of transport and different forms of bed are mixed and matched with creative joy.
The contribution of co-writer Jean-Claude Carrière is significant here. A fellow graduate of the Tati school, Carrière's best-known visual comedy writing is in Viva Maria! (1965), the control of tone here, and the assembling of gag sequences, are much stronger. A connection can even be made between Étaix and Carrière's most famous collaborator, Buñuel, not so much in the surrealism, but in the way a narrative can be assembled from a series of blackout sketches. Étaix's background in the music hall may be significant here, but while the film works as a string of inventive skits on married life (with throwaway moments of beauty like a dug jolting in its sleep each time the nutcrackers are used at the dinner table), but as a single narrative with rather profound, humane points to make about life in general.
Does Étaix (82 this year) intend to make more films?
"Yes, but I will have to be quick."
And now that his work as director is reclaiming its rightful place in the history of comedy, we await a chance to see another of his suppressed performances, in Jerry Lewis's The Day the Clown Cried.
"Twice in my life have I understood the meaning of the word 'genius'. The first time was in looking up the definition in a dictionary, and the second time in meeting Pierre Étaix." —Jerry Lewis.
The Forgotten is a regular Thursday column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.