Pierre Étaix, the incomparable French comedic actor, director and screenwriter died in Paris on Friday. During Film Forum’s 2012 festival celebrating Étaix, in a post titled “Where have You Been All My Life,” I wrote:
Pierre Étaix, director and actor, is a comedic genius and a cinematic innovator whose work–five features and three shorts, made in the 60s–long unseen because of tangled rights issues, had fallen into obscurity. Neither I nor any of my constantly moviegoing friends had heard of him before a few weeks ago. But now, finally, Étaix’s brilliant, uproariously funny oeuvre is available to be rediscovered.
Laughter in a crowded theater can be contagious, even if the film is of just average appeal. The press screening I went to of “Heureux Anniversaire” (Academy Award winner for Best Live Action Short of 1962) and “Le Grand Amour” was uncrowded. I sat alone in my row, choking and rolling with laughter.
“Le Grand Amour” (which Étaix co-wrote with Buñuel collaborator, Jean-Claude Carrière) follows a man (played by Étaix), on the cusp of middle age and its crisis, who after 15 years of marriage, is leaving his options open–and falls hard for his lovely, barely-legal new secretary. In an incomparable dream sequence, his bed becomes a car (a very different interpretation of traveling on rural French roads than that in Godard’s “Weekend”). He picks up his crush and passes other bed/autos–broken down, involved in accidents, farm tractors at work–before pulling off into a secluded forest glade.
I like to laugh. I like funny people. An old friend who did a stint writing for Letterman would try out gags on me and if I laughed, he sometimes considered them less than rigorous, calling me “an easy laugh.” (Ha, ha.) But it’s unlikely anyone will be able to resist Étaix’s endlessly inventive verbal and visual wit and graceful physical comedy.
I was privileged (and a bit star-struck, as Jenny noted) to photograph and talk (with translation help provided by his wife Odile) to Monsieur Étaix this week. He described Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd as “the whole thing,” auteurs.
Undeniably, so was he.
A collector’s set of Etaix’s work is available from The Criterion Collection.