It is an understatement to say that, in the realm of French comedy cinema, Pierre Étaix was overshadowed by the great Jacques Tati.
Both made films throughout the '60s. In his prime, the trim, handsome Étaix looked more like a movie star than the gangly, ponderous Tati ever did. But the two men shared an ingenuity for the surreal sight gag. In fact, Étaix collaborated with Tati as a gag writer and assistant director on his film Mon Oncle.
Yet Étaix was denied Tati's fame; he doesn't even warrant a listing in the Encyclopedia of European Film. This likely stems from a legal dispute with a distribution company, which has kept much of Étaix's work in legal limbo, until now.
Cinematheque is screening a pair of Étaix films as they come available on a Criterion DVD collection.
Made in 1969, Le Grand Amour is one of the director's later features. Étaix plays a groom pondering his past romantic life as he is about to be wed in an enormous cathedral.
He is reticent. His wife Florence (Annie Fratellini, Étaix's real-life wife) is lovely but comes with the expectation her new husband will join the family tannery business.
After the wedding, the action picks up 10 years later; our hero is still devoted to his wife, but susceptible to temptation in the form of a delectable young secretary named Agnes (Nicole Calfan).
That's pretty much the summary of the plot. But Étaix wrings much out of that slim premise, including a sustained dream sequence in which Étaix's bed transforms into a car and beelines to Agnes, passing other bed-bound commuters along the way.
The overall work, while a sweet diversion, doesn't necessarily qualify as the "Comic Genius" promised in the Cinematheque program. It lacks the inspiration of Étaix's contemporaries. It doesn't have the formal elegance of Tati or the straight-razor subversion of Luis Bu±uel (with whom Étaix has been compared).
Still, the presentation of this Étaix's work does offer the thrill of the buried treasure. One wonders at the trick of fate that rendered such a significant comic director an obscurity for the past half-century. Étaix could probably make a film about that very subject. He is still alive and active at the age of 84.
Le Grand Amour plays at Cinematheque Friday, March 29, Saturday, March 30 and Wednesday, April 3, at 7 p.m. Étaix's 1965 film Yoyo plays Wednesday, April 3, and Thursday, April 4, at 7 p.m. and Sunday, April 7, at 2 p.m.
Pierre Étaix: Le Grand Amour
Starring Pierre Étaix
Starting Friday at Cinematheque.
3 stars out of five