Pierre Étaix: The Lost Laugh
- Pierre Étaix: The Lost Laugh
“Pierre Étaix may be the funniest filmmaker you never heard of.”—Susan King, Los Angeles Times
“The films of Pierre Étaix are back. For those unaware of his existence, these screen gems of the 1960s will be a happy discovery; for those who know him, a cause for celebration.”—Frank Bren, Bright Lights Film Journal
From November 4 through November 21, the Gene Siskel Film Center presents “Pierre Étaix: The Lost Laugh,” a series of six features and three shorts representing the long-unseen work of an important French comedy actor-director of the 1960s.
Born in 1928 in the Loire region of central France, Pierre Étaix (pronounced ay-TEX) aspired from early childhood to be a circus clown. His gifts for comedy and drawing brought him to the attention of Jacques Tati, and Étaix spent four years contributing artwork and gags to Tati’s 1958 classic MY UNCLE (which is included in this series). An illustrated novelization of that film brought Étaix together with Jean-Claude Carrière, the now-celebrated screenwriter (BELLE DE JOUR, THE TIN DRUM) who collaborated on several of Étaix’s early films.
Étaix and Carrière co-wrote and co-directed the short films RUPTURE (1961) and HAPPY ANNIVERSARY (1962), the latter of which won an Academy Award for Best Short Subject. Étaix’s first feature, THE SUITOR (1962), was a smash hit in France and an art-house success all over the world. His skills as a pantomimic actor and director reached a peak in his second feature, YOYO (1965). His next films got a more mixed reception, and the failure of his adventurous 1971 documentary LAND OF MILK AND HONEY virtually ended his directing career.
Étaix returned to the circus, co-founded a clown college, and wrote numerous books. Legal disputes with producers kept his films out of distribution (including video) for over thirty years. In 2009, a petition signed by 56,000 people (including such admirers as Woody Allen, Jean-Luc Godard, and David Lynch) led to the rescue of his films from legal limbo. They have now been beautifully restored, and they are being released in the U.S. in new 35mm prints by Janus Films. Reportedly still spry at age 83, Pierre Étaix will have a well-deserved last laugh, as will the audiences who now have a chance to discover or rediscover his delightful and inventive--and nearly lost--films.
Special thanks to Sarah Finklea and Brian Belovarac of Janus Films.
Sunday double-bill discount!
Buy a ticket for the first Étaix film on any Sunday in November, and get a ticket for the second Étaix film that day at this discount rate (tickets must be purchased at the same time): General Admission $7; Students $6; Members $4. (This discount rate applies to the second film only. Discount rate available only at the Film Center box office.)
- MY UNCLE
- (MON ONCLE)
- 1958, Jacques Tati, France, 110 min.
- With Jacques Tati, Jean-Pierre Zola
“I learned everything from Tati,” said Étaix. Credited as assistant director, he contributed significantly to the film’s gags and visual design, and he has a small role as a passerby whose clucking noises confuse a woman plucking a chicken. Following the success of MR. HULOT'S HOLIDAY, Tati brought the Hulot character to Paris to visit his status-conscious sister and brother-in-law, proud owners of an automated house whose absurd decors and misfiring gadgets provide some of Tati's funniest sequences. We are showing the recently restored English-language version of the film, slightly but interestingly different from the French version. 35mm. (MR)
- 1965, Pierre Étaix, France, 96 min.
- With Pierre Étaix, Claudine Auger
Beautifully filmed in black-and-white, with a more substantial story and richer characterizations to accompany its gag sequences (including an amazing bout of below-the-ankle sex), YOYO is arguably Étaix’s finest and most fully achieved film. It begins in 1925 as a silent movie, with Étaix as a filthy rich and hilariously lazy sybarite. The Depression brings financial ruin and turns the film into a talkie, as the man’s son (also Étaix) becomes a circus clown who vows to restore the family chateau to its former glory. In French with English subtitles. 35mm. (MR)
- AS LONG AS YOU'RE HEALTHY
- (TANT QU’ON A LA SANTÉ)
- 1966, Pierre Étaix, France, 65 min.
- With Pierre Étaix, Denise Péronne
This anthology film from Étaix’s peak period presents four comic episodes with an accent on the pitfalls of modern life: (1) a scary vampire novel keeps a man awake, (2) a moviegoer’s attempts to find a seat give way to an onslaught of absurd ads, (3) noise and pollution send a man to the doctor’s, (4) a hunter disrupts a rural idyll. In French with English subtitles. 35mm.
EN PLEINE FORME
1966, Pierre Étaix, France, 13 min.
With Pierre Étaix
A camping episode originally included in AS LONG AS YOU’RE HEALTHY until Étaix decided to release it as a separate short. In French with English subtitles. 35mm. (MR)
- THE SUITOR
- (LE SOUPIRANT)
- 1965, Pierre Étaix, France, 96 min.
- With Pierre Étaix, France Arnel
A clueless bookworm sets out to find a wife in amusingly inept ways. Étaix’s highly successful first feature combines elements of Buster Keaton and Mr. Magoo, with a wealth of gags based on misperception and misalignment (e.g., a hilarious tea-time sequence in which the hero absent-mindedly pours milk into the sugar bowl, uses a piece of toast as a saucer, etc.). In French with English subtitles. 35mm.
1961, Pierre Étaix and Jean-Claude Carrière
France, 11 min.
With Pierre Étaix
Étaix and Carrière’s short in which a jilted suitor’s efforts to answer a “Dear John” letter become a series of escalating disasters. In French with English subtitles. 35mm. (MR)
- LAND OF MILK AND HONEY
- (PAYS DE COCAGNE)
- 1971, Pierre Étaix, France, 74 min.
For his fifth feature, Étaix boldly struck out in a new direction--and paid the price. Not only was LAND his first documentary, but its more explicitly satiric and political dimensions alienated the critics and the public. Falling somewhere between Marker’s LE JOLI MAI and Godard’s WEEKEND, the film is a verité-style collage of the French seaside during vacation time, depicting parades, talent contests, litter-strewn campgrounds, overweight bathers, and bumper-to-bumper traffic, as interviewers canvass the public on such topics as eroticism, advertising, marriage, the Moon landing, and Pierre Étaix. In French with English subtitles. 35mm. (MR)
- LE GRAND AMOUR
- 1969, Pierre Étaix, France, 87 min.
- With Pierre Étaix, Nicole Calfan
“The funniest and most lyrical of Étaix’s films.”
—François Mauriac, Le Figaro
Previously unreleased in the U.S., Étaix’s third major feature is also his most freewheeling. When a restless businessman (Étaix) acquires a hot young secretary (Calfan) and his wife conveniently goes away on vacation, his imagination goes into overdrive. Filled with wild fantasies and subjunctive episodes, the film evokes Preston Sturges’s UNFAITHFULLY YOURS and Billy Wilder’s THE SEVEN-YEAR ITCH; it also anticipates co-screenwriter Carrière’s work on Buñuel’s THE DISCREET CHARM OF THE BOURGEOISIE. In French with English subtitles. 35mm.
1962, Pierre Étaix and Jean-Claude Carrière
France, 12 min.
With Pierre Étaix
Étaix and Carrière’s Oscar-winning short concerning a husband’s battles with Paris traffic and other obstacles en route to an anniversary dinner. In French with English subtitles. 35mm. (MR)