An introduction to the films of Pierre Étaix

Pierre Étaix
Pierre Étaix

Comedian Jerry Lewis once wrote, “Twice in my life, I understood what genius meant: the first time when I looked up the definition in a dictionary, and the second time when I met Pierre Étaix.” I’m inclined to agree with him. I discovered this French director’s films only recently and the feeling I got was akin to that of someone discovering an extremely valuable treasure that has been buried underneath the ground for centuries.

Pierre Étaix was born on Nov.23, 1928 in a French commune called Roanne. It was the films of Jacques Tati that actually led me to Étaix. I was reading up on Tati one day and learned that he had worked with an incredibly talented young artist whose drawings made such a big impact on Tati that he asked Étaix to work on one of his masterpieces, Mon Oncle. Étaix was an expert at sight gags and deadpan comedy. His remarkable talent for conjuring up wonderfully unique, imaginative set pieces and visually impressive gags is unparalleled.

Étaix came from a circus background and one can see its strong influence in his films too. Also visible is the influence of the silent comedies he adored as a child.  Étaix enjoyed only a brief career and although his work has been compared to that of, obviously, Tati and Jerry Lewis, he created a distinct brand of comedy that stood on its own. He had a face that came straight out of – or rather, was made for – cartoons. He may not be that well-known as Tati (except among serious cineastes) but he has produced a considerable amount of brilliant work in his lifetime. I instantly fell in love with his work after watching two short films of his – Rupture (1961) and Insomnie (1963).

Another short film, Happy Anniversary, won him his first Oscar. It’s about a man who is unable to get home to his wife as a result of getting repeatedly bothered by obstacles along the way. He also made five full-length films – The Suitor, Yoyo, As Long as You’ve Got Your Health, Le grand amour, and Land of Milk and Honey. Out of these, Yoyo is widely regarded as his masterpiece. It’s a phenomenal piece of work. If anyone is interested in exploring his work, I would suggest starting with Rupture and Insomnie. The first one is about a man who gets a break-up letter from his girl and as he tries to write a response, he is troubled by the small things that are lying around: stamps, ink bottle, glue, table, drawers etc.

The second is his hilarious take on the legend of Dracula. A man lies in bed reading a horror book and we see the images from it play out along with the unexpectedly comical reactions that come from him as he reads it. Étaix plays both the reader and the famous vampire. There is a nice homage to the F.W Murnau’s Nosferatu. This unpredictable film is populated with some clever tricks that you won’t see coming. They are guaranteed to astonish you and put a big smile on your face. And there is a nice twist at the end which I won’t spoil. Both Rupture and Insomnie are silent films. I’m including the link to Insomnie below:

Insomnie:

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