Comic genius

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 28 November, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 28 November, 2010, 12:00am

The 39th French Cinepanorama has a special treat this year in eight fully restored films by comedy master Pierre Etaix. Their theatrical renaissance began in Paris on July 7 and, before Arte's new DVD collection of these five features and three shorts from 1961 to 71, none had appeared commercially on video. All, except Yoyo, will play in Hong Kong for the first time at the Film Archive from December 4.

In 1963, enthusiastic critics around the world described Etaix as a 'French Buster Keaton' - much to the Frenchman's displeasure, even though he adores Keaton and addressed two moving tributes to him in the 1960s in the Paris weekly, Arts. Yet cinema's 'total control' comics - meaning those who direct, write and star in their films, such as Etaix, Keaton, Max Linder, Harold Lloyd, Charlie Chaplin, Jacques Tati, Jerry Lewis (an Etaix fan) and Woody Allen - are so rare such comparisons are inevitable. Etaix's minimal-dialogue films naturally recall the 1920s when Chinese audiences took Linder, Lloyd, Keaton and Chaplin to their hearts.

Whence Pierre Etaix? A gifted designer, his cartoons first appeared in the saucy French magazine, Le Rire, in 1953. There followed four years of apprenticeship as storyboardist, gag writer and assistant director on Tati's film, Mon Oncle (1958), as well as illustrating novelisations of Tati's films by Jean-Claude Carriere. Etaix also performed as a pantomime clown on French TV, in music halls and intermittently over the years in touring circuses while taking minor roles in Mon Oncle and films by Robert Bresson, Louis Malle, Federico Fellini and Nagisa Oshima.

His books include Sketches of Jerry Lewis (1983) and Stars System (1986), containing ingenious drawings of show business figures such as Fellini (portrayed by a single, caricatured eye).

His first-produced play (You Are Older, Monsieur) was a hit in Paris in 1985 and later filmed by the author.

But these and later activities are tributaries of the main act. From 1961 to 71, Etaix, alongside Tati, had the most brilliant film comedy career in post-war France before being forgotten by almost everyone. From 2004, a legal dispute over rights to exploit Etaix's films, between co-authors Carriere and Etaix on one hand and Gavroche Productions, the company to which they had ceded these rights on the other, threatened to quarantine Etaix's five features of 1962-1971 beyond the authors' lifetimes.

Only the efforts of campaigners ensured the films' restoration and re-release.

Etaix's film career began in June 1961 when producer Paul Claudon saw his mime act in Tati's music-hall show, Jour de fete a l'Olympia. Claudon produced the duo's first commercial comedy shorts in Rupture and the Oscar-winning Happy Anniversary that year.

Etaix's low-budget first feature as director-star, The Suitor (1963), set global box office records for a French comedy, sharing the much-coveted Prix Louis Delluc for best French film of 1962. The plot is sparked by Maman and Papa urging their scholastic, thirtysomething son (Etaix) to get married. Observing the mating mores of others, the son apes them clumsily in an hilarious marital quest across Paris. Its brilliant chain-gags, minimal dialogue and a delicate touch characterise Etaix's masterworks, Yoyo (1965), the Insomnia segment of the omnibus film As Long As You're Healthy (1966), and The Great Love (1969), whose banal, Seven Year Itch-like story yields classic set-pieces of fantasy-comedy - it was included in the Cannes Film Festival classics section this year. That brilliant career crashed following his fifth feature, Land of Milk and Honey (1971), and the resultant breach with producer Claudon.

Etaix is also prominent in other media, especially circus performances. In 1973, he and Annie Fratellini launched the first French national circus school, which assisted the circus' global revival of recent decades. His prodigious talents have made him, to quote The Guardian, 'as original a filmmaker as we may ever hope to see'. Or even better, from Jerry Lewis: 'He's funny, I mean funny.'

Details of screenings of Etaix's films at www.frenchcinepanorama.com