Meet Pierre Étaix – Rediscovering a forgotten clown of French cinema

6 February, 2013 (10:20) | by Sean Axmaker, Directors, Events, Film Reviews | By: Sean Axmaker

Who is Pierre Étaix? His filmography is small (five features and a handful of short films, one of which earned an Oscar), but he worked with Jacques Tati and Robert Bresson, and he’s celebrated as a genius of ’60s French screen comedy. Shouldn’t his reputation precede him? Watch a couple of his masterful films, though, and a more relevant question comes to the fore: “How can it be that I’ve never heard of Pierre Étaix?”

Pierre Étaix in ‘The Suitor’

The simple answer: His films were out of circulation for decades due to legal issues, freed only in 2009, restored in 2010, and re-released in France to great acclaim. Northwest Film Forum is now presenting all five of his features and his first three comedy shorts.

As for the original question: Étaix trained and performed as a clown, became a star on the ’50s cabaret circuit, and worked with Tati as both gag man and graphic artist on the latter’s classic Mon Oncle (1958) before directing his own films. Between 1961 and 1971 he created and starred in four features and three comedy shorts (all written with Jean-Claude Carrière, who went on to script films for Luis Buñuel, Jean-Luc Godard, and others). Étaix even shot a documentary, 1971’s Land of Milk and Honey, also included in this series.

As both filmmaker and comic screen persona, the obvious comparisons are to Tati and Buster Keaton: a silent-movie clown in a sound world. Étaix’s films are simple, sweet, and built on some of the funniest and most deftly executed gags you’ll have the pleasure to see onscreen. There’s not a wasted gesture in his repertoire. His hangdog face, poised between curiosity and measured focus, barely changes expression as he takes every setback with a resigned acceptance before going right back in. (Born in 1928, Étaix has essentially retired as a director, but continues to act, most recently in Aki Kaurismäki’s Le Havre.)

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