Clown-Time’s Not Over
by Frank Bren
Sep 01, 2011 | 1502 views | 0 0 comments | 14 14 recommendations | email to a friend | print
The odds are that you have never heard of Pierre Étaix, nor seen his films. Longtime friend Jerry Lewis describes Étaix as “one of the great forces” of 20th-century film comedy. Variety called him “one of the leading film comic creators on the world scene,” while for the Sydney Sun-Herald “there are comedians good and bad, and there are artists like Pierre Étaix, who [is] something like pure oxygen compared with air.” But even though he remains one of the world’s greatest cine-clowns, and despite being alive and well and living in Paris and the winner of many international awards, Étaix somehow vanished from film buffs’ awareness for almost 40 years.

One of his shorts (Insomnie) is a classic of the vampire genre; another (Happy Anniversary) won an Oscar in 1963. He directed five features, including one international sensation (The Suitor) and another (Yoyo) that, with The Great Love (released 1969), comprise three classics of comic cinema. Étaix’s output—much of it written with his friend, the highly regarded screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière—remains (with the exception of Land of Milk and Honey) absolutely timeless. Yet he does not even make the indexes of significant recent books on French and world cinema.

The general public amnesia around this filmmaker is amazing, and stems largely from the unavailability of Étaix’s films. A bizarre rights mess, involving alleged legal misconduct compounded by unfortunate decisions made by Étaix and Carrière, quarantined these movies from public view for many years. But a vigorous campaign, featuring an online petition of more than 56,000 signatories (including luminaries Woody Allen, Leslie Caron and David Lynch), helped restore their ownership to the two authors. Restored under the joint supervision of two cultural heritage bodies (Groupama Gan Foundation and Technicolor Foundation for Cinema Heritage), the comedies of this director, writer and clown began appearing in Paris cinemas starting in 2010, and should eventually play in cinemas worldwide. Last year, his films appeared commercially on DVD for the first time in a French edition, with an international edition (containing English subtitles) yet to come.

The Étaix revival also includes the 2007 book, Étaix Draws Tati, featuring hundreds of his drawings and designs used in the making of Jacques Tati’s 1958 classic, Mon Oncle. Screenings of Étaix’s masterpiece Yoyo (1964)—from an impeccably restored print—were triumphs in Cannes and at the Cinemathèque française.

So just who is

Pierre Étaix?

France has produced three outstanding filmmaker-comics in the tradition of “burlesque” cinema: Max Linder (1883–1925), Jacques Tati (1907–1982) and Étaix (b. 1928). Burlesque cinema is best personified by the works of legendary actor-filmmaker Charlie Chaplin (who acknowledged Max Linder as a major influence), the pioneering Buster Keaton and The Marx Brothers, the elastic Jerry Lewis, and even Hong Kong’s Jackie Chan, whose films reveal a great admiration for Keaton. Typically, such comics want total control and —like Lewis, Chaplin and Keaton—are extremely articulate about their craft, which is not only about being funny. Étaix says that he doesn’t laugh so much watching Keaton as feel a certain ecstasy, as if landing in an ideal universe.

Born in 1928, the young Étaix took lessons in violin and piano, and in drawing, dancing and gymnastics, while teaching himself to play the xylophone, accordion, saxophone, mandolin, trumpet, and concertina, all deemed essential to a clown’s armory. By 1954, in his native Roanne (also the birthplace of Jean-Pierre Jeunet), the 25-year-old Étaix was a nascent clown, inspired to that end since childhood by the visiting Pinder Circus, and by watching the small-gauge films (starring Laurel & Hardy, Harry Langdon, Chaplin, and other “old” comedians) shown by his parents. He worked in local amateur theatre, while learning stage magic and developing other vital clowning attributes. As all clowns know, to juggle comically you have to do it well.

Upon its release, Étaix saw Mr. Hulot’s Holiday (France, 1953), by Jacques Tati, who had arrived as a breath of fresh air in the then-arid comedy scene of French cinema with his feature debut Jour De Fête in 1949. Tati’s much-loved and highly influential follow-up Holiday was a thrilling discovery for Étaix. In early 1954, when Étaix heard Tati speaking on radio about his admiration for skilled illustrators, the young clown—also talented with the pencil—impetuously gathered a portfolio of his artwork and settled in Paris, winning Tati’s confidence and joining the Mon Oncle creative team in late 1954.

Mon Oncle became Étaix’s film school. He worked as an on-set gofer and also took on the roles of storyboardist, gagman, assistant director and uncredited player. Descriptions of Étaix’s work on the film can be found in David Bellos’ highly readable book, Jacques Tati, His Life and Art, which was a rare instance then of anything at all written in English about Étaix. Sadly, the book suggests a vindictive side to Tati in his near complete brush-off of Étaix when the young man left him in 1958 or 1959 (details of their breach remain unclear) to become a clown and music hall artist in his own right. This clearly hurt Étaix, who would never talk of Tati other than in terms of admiration and as a master.

Étaix’s work with Tati yielded an important friendship. Around 1958, he met Jean-Claude Carrière, whom Tati hired to novelize Mr. Hulot’s Holiday and Mon Oncle. Étaix was hired to illustrate, and the two began making plans to write films together.

In 1961, Tati temporarily “forgave” Étaix by hiring him at the last moment for his extraordinary music-hall show, Jour De Fête à l’Olympia, an unpredictable mix of filmed and onstage action with the setting of a village fairground spilling over from the stage into the auditorium. The film Jour de Fête comprised the second half of the program.

Tati’s show had recruited many of Paris’s variety acts as his agents combed the city’s cabaret, club and music-hall venues. They saw Étaix perform but made no contact. Finally, out of interest, Étaix went to watch the final rehearsals of Jour De Fête à l’Olympia at the theatre, sitting quietly at the back. That’s when his moment came. “Curiously,” he explained, “at that moment, Tati was on the stage, asking his secretary, ‘Have you telephoned Étaix?’ She said, ‘Yes, but they told me that he had left.’ I said, ‘No! I’m here!’ Tati looked astonished, and said, ‘You are so quick!’” It wasn’t a complete thawing between the two, but Tati at least gave the nervous Étaix a prominent position in the program.

In pantomime and featuring simple recalcitrant objects like his chair and the buttons on his jacket, Étaix’s act attracted the attention of film producer Paul Claudon, himself a fan of yesteryear’s film clowns, and that’s where Étaix’s cinematic career was born. He began writing with Carrière, who shared his passion for “golden age” movie comedies, particularly those of Laurel & Hardy. As Carrière put it, Étaix never confused comedy with speed. Laurel & Hardy were masters of taking their time, and the approach perfectly suited Étaix and Carrière’s first commercial shorts for Claudon: Rupture, and then the Oscar-winning Happy Anniversary, both in 1961.

Carrière, a former Telluride Guest Director, soon became one of cinema’s most important screenwriters. He wrote six films with Luis Buñuel, including That Obscure Object of Desire, Belle du Jour and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and collaborated with Peter Brook, Volker Schlöndorff, Milos Forman, Louis Malle, and Andrzej Wajda. Carrière and Étaix cross-pitched gags and storylines, retaining only those that they both found amusing—then and weeks later. They continue to work together, more than 50 years later.

In addition to learning about directing from Tati, Étaix studied the process of Robert Bresson, the great perfectionist of French cinema, after being invited to play a role in the now-classic Pickpocket (1959). “It intrigued me very much to see how Bresson worked … he controls everything and leaves nothing to interpretation,” Étaix told me. “I was terribly impressed by his work and was curious to see how he shot it. It was instructive because I saw that this man had such a souci of perfection that it required an enormous number of shots … he employed about 50 or 60 takes for every one used. Enormous. Sometimes he had 60 to 70 takes. He told me he did one with ‘only’ 44.”

In 1963, Étaix’s debut feature, The Suitor, took everyone by surprise. It was the Amélie of its day, breaking box office records in France and proving hugely popular worldwide. It charmed hardened reviewers, including Bosley Crowther of The New York Times, as what Crowther had believed was a lost art: “old” comedy whose dialogue is primarily gesture and well-constructed chain gags. In 1962, well before it was released in France, the newspaper France Soir called The Suitor “the most clandestine film in Paris. It’s made by an unknown, starring the same unknown, who is supported by other unknowns. Who is this Étaix? Thirty-three years, dark brown, a Southerner (born in Roanne) ... he can do anything—play the violin and piano, draw...he’s done everything—painter, glass designer, humorist, illusionist, clown.”

The plot of The Suitor is wonderfully silly and full of slapstick classics, or as Time magazine said of the film, “it’s a sight-gag soufflé.” The main character, a man in his 30s (and probably a virgin), is an only child in a well-to-do household in Paris, buried eternally in studies of the constellations or other meaningful matters. His parents urge him to find a wife. Like a man from Mars, with no such experience, he wanders the streets of Paris studying dating and mating rituals on the streets, in nightclubs, and at pavement cafes. Eventually disappointed, the suitor finally returns home to find true love. This plot description, however, hardly prepares you for the magic of this film.

Thanks to his hit debut, Étaix’s next film justified a much bigger budget. Yoyo, his masterpiece, is much deeper than The Suitor, and extraordinarily beautiful to look at, a love letter to the circus and a film buff’s paradise, with its discreet homages to Linder, Keaton, Fellini and Ingmar Bergman. It moves from the late 1920s through to the 1960s, the first third focusing on a bored millionaire (Étaix) who lives in a sumptuous castle, constantly dreaming of his lost love—a horsewoman who left him years earlier for the freedom of circus life. Servants and entertainers do their best to distract him, but to little effect. The best example comes with a wonderful striptease scene, featuring the unlacing of his footwear.

The millionaire hires a passing circus for his own entertainment, and discovers that their leading horsewoman is... his lost love. The circus’s youngest clown is their son, Yoyo. Then follows the stock market crash, and the fate of the adult Yoyo (Étaix again), who eventually becomes a rich and successful clown. But is he really happy?

In April 1965, Jerry Lewis saw Yoyo at the Marbeuf Cinema, and immediately called the startled Étaix and demanded to meet him. They arranged a hasty rendezvous at the Ritz, and as Étaix later said of Lewis to writer Michel Lengliney: “Right away, he said something extraordinary! ‘After seeing Yoyo, I know that I’ve known you for a very long time. I’ve been getting discouraged with my own work, but tonight you restored my self-belief.’” The meeting kicked off a friendship that has lasted over 46 years.

Étaix and Carrière continued to work throughout the next decade. So Long as You’re Healthy (1966) consists of three shorts on a single theme: the pains of living in a modern society. It is as close as Étaix has come to a Tex Avery-style gag-fest, and was often accompanied by his short film Insomnie, a realistic spoof of the vampire genre in which a young man with insomnia reads a vampire novel in bed.

The Great Love (1969), which took on a theme similar to Billy Wilder’s Marilyn Monroe vehicle The Seven Year Itch (1955), is set in Tours, as a young man settles for an easy life by marrying the daughter of a wealthy industrialist. The domestic routine dulls his senses, until one day he hires and falls for a new secretary. It’s not what he does about it, but rather what he dreams he might do about it, that drives the laughs. The film’s greatest scene, a silent sequence lasting several minutes, has ambulant beds prowling country roads carrying him and other dreamers with their assorted problems. It won the 1969 Grand prix du cinéma français over runner-up, Costa Gravas’ Z.

Land of Milk and Honey (1971) emerges from documentary footage of the French at play in the late 1960s. Poorly received, it helped sink Étaix’s film career. The film company CAPAC, which produced Étaix’ films, decided to stop making them. Étaix’s projects, including a proposed vehicle for Jerry Lewis, were ignored. And he suffered from tragic bad luck. In 1986, having prepared an ambitious feature based on The Bible, he convinced Coluche—the most popular and bankable comic in France—to star. But just before they co-signed a contract, on June 19, 1986, Coluche ran his powerful Honda 1100 motorbike head-on into a truck. Both Coluche—clown and acid-tongued funnyman—and the last dream film project of Pierre Étaix died that day.

But Étaix and wife Annie Fratellini (1932-1997) stayed busy. For example, on an eight-month tour in 1971, they served as clowns with The Pinder Circus, the same performing troupe that had inspired him as a child. They appeared that year in Federico Fellini’s film, The Clowns, and in 1973/1974 co-launched l’École nationale de cirque, one of the first such circus-skills’ training schools in Europe (and of incalculable value to the global revival of the circus in the following decades). The New York Times described Étaix and Fratellini as France’s “premier clown duo.”

For four decades, Étaix remained a missed opportunity for French and world cinema. But with his films at last restored for a new generation, his star finally shines once more.


Pierre Étaix

b. November 23, 1928, Roanne, France


J’écris dans l’espace (1989)

L’âge de Monsieur est avancé (1987)

Souris noire (TV series) (1987)

Land of Milk and Honey (1971)

Le grand amour (1969)

As Long As You’re Healthy (1966)

Yo Yo (1965)

The Suitor (1962)


Le Havre (2011)

Chantrapas (2010)

Micmacs (2009)

Lucifer et moi (2008)

Jardins en automne (2006)

Henry & June (1990)

L’âge de Monsieur est avancé (1987)

Nuit docile (1987)

Max mon amour (1986)

Serious as Pleasure (1975)

Show Pierre Etaix (TV movie) (1974)

The Day the Clown Cried (1972)

Le grand amour (1969)

The Thief of Paris (1967)

As Long As You’re Healthy (1966)

Yo Yo (1965)

The Suitor (1962)

A Swelled Head (1962)

The Army Game (1960)

Pickpocket (1959)
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