Friday, November 18, 2011

Pierre Étaix | Heureux Anniversaire (Happy Anniversary) / Le grand amour (The Great Love)

being married: two films by pierre étaix
by Douglas Messerli

Pierre Étaix and Jean-Claude Carrière (writers and directors) Heureux Anniversaire (Happy Anniversary) / 1962, USA 1963

Pierre Étaix and Jean-Claude Carrière (writers), Pierre Étaix (director) Le grand amour (The Great Love) / 1969

On November 16, 2011, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences presented an evening of two films, a short and feature, by the French director Pierre Étaix, a man little known in the US because his films were, for many years, tied up in copyright issues which also resulted in their deterioration. Through the help of several organizations, particularly the Technicolor Foundation for Cinema Heritage and Groupama Gan Foundation for Cinema, this director’s films have been restored and will be released next year by Criterion on DVD. But it was a special treat to see two of them at the Academy’s widescreen Samuel Goldwyn Theater.

     The first of these “The Laughter Returns” films was Étaix’s 1962 black and white short (15 minutes) Heureux Anniversaire, which flawlessly reveals Étaix’s roots in the circus, as well as his major cinematic influences, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Jacques Tati, with whom he worked on Mon Oncle.

     This movie, which won the 1963 Academy Award for short films, is a kind of road picture—in which no one goes anywhere. The earliest frames reveal a loving wife, La femme (Laurence Lignières) setting a formal table, hiding a gift within the napery and preparing a beautiful meal for her husband: it is, quite clearly, a special occasion, and when, soon after we see Le mari (Étaix) with a wrapped package and champagne, we recognize that is a shared holiday, in fact an anniversary. When the husband attempts to drive away from the shop where he has purchased the gift, cars have locked him in. He honks one of the cars horns, and a man, mid-shave, exits from the barber, politely moving the car so that the implacable Étaix can exit.

     One major difference from Étaix’s films from other comic works of its time, is that it seldom focuses on only one figure. For this poor man, whose space is immediately overtaken by another automobile, is forced for the rest of the film to circle the block, shouting out to the barber over and over that he will be right back.

    The happy husband, meanwhile, trapped in a traffic jam which the writers mock by showing various drivers engaged in every kind of activity—except driving—imaginable, from reading, playing games, dining, etc.

     When traffic finally loosens a bit, our hero decides to stop by a flower shop. This time, he enters a narrow space, which, when he returns, permits him no entry into his car. For a few seconds, he even contemplates crawling through others to get to his own, but it is to no avail, and other trapped drivers berate him for the situation.

     Meanwhile, the wife, patiently waiting at home, is growing tired, bored, certainly impatient, as she nibbles at a salad, nips a bit the wine.

     The flowers are crushed by the time hero is on his way again. Another visit to a shop, where he buys a ridiculous sunflower, ultimately ends with similar results: the flower is beheaded. By the time the poor man reaches his apartment door, the wife, having finished off the bottle and eaten much of the food, has fallen into a kind of drunken stupor, her had lying upon the dinner table. Le mari gently kisses her and rattles the little package she has hidden the napkins folds. He shall have to spend the night alone. Such is married life in the 20th century urban world.


     As Étaix himself describes it, Le grand amour is based on a vaudeville conceit, that of an older man attracted to a younger woman. If one wants to recognize just how adroit Étaix is, however, one might compare this film with an American equivalent such as Billy Wilder’s tepid comedy of 1955, The Seven Year Itch. Similar to Le grand amour, the male in Wilder’s farce is fed-up with married life, and attracted to a young shapely woman (in this case, Marilyn Monroe), and like the Étaix figure, imagines all sorts of humorous scenarios of how to seduce the younger woman while his wife is away on vacation. Yet how much more coarse and, frankly, uninteresting, is Wilder’s version. Tom Ewell was a bean-bag of a man, middle age having spread to every muscle in his body. Perfect, I imagine, for all those frumpy American men who still might imagine that Monroe would swoon over them. But Étaix, still handsome in a comic way, has a true chance to attract this young beauty, his secretary Agnès; indeed she seems almost to flirt with him, and readily agrees to join him on a dinner date. In short, we know nothing will ever happen between Ewell and Monroe; the idea is preposterous from the outset. But in Le grand amour there is actually a dangerous possibility that Pierre’s attractions will take him further than an imaginary fling.

     In Le grand amour, moreover, we also know the whole story of their lives, and witness how Florence (whose appearance is so close to her mother that she takes the frightening prediction—“like mother, like daughter”—to an entirely new dimension) has manipulated him. The family relationship is comically reiterated by the scene in which, after having heard gossip of her husband’s philandering in the park, packs up to go home to “mamma.” The film brilliantly tracks her down the stairs, Pierre pleading with her as she goes, to watch her enter  a room below wherein her mother and father sit.

     Florence’s family have, despite Pierre’s reluctance, been only too happy to marry their daughter off, and before he has even had the opportunity to think things out, he finds himself in the cathedral with a hundred sober faces behind him, determined to see he follow through with the event. The wedding is made even a more hilarious when we discover the facts that, Étaix later married the actress playing Florence (Annie Fratellini), several members of her circus-performing family serving as figures in the film.

    The paternal business is a tannery, and before Pierre can even say, “I do,” he is closeted up into that family enterprise, each day facing the ugly visage of the father's capable secretary. Although outwardly playing the joyful married couple, dining several nights a week with Florence’s family, the two, years later, are both dreadfully bored. No mere “seven year itch,” Pierre is suffering from what might be described as an intense rash. He cannot even walk through the park on his way to work without arousing the interest of the provincial town’s gossips, wonderful clowns and character actors whose antics carry this film into new comic dimensions.

     It can hardly be a shock, accordingly, when a young, very young, beautiful girl turns up in Pierre’s office to replace the former battle-axe. Goaded on by his friend Jacques (Alain Janey), Pierre suddenly begins to imagine, just as the Tom Ewell character in the Wilder film, all sorts of possibilities. But while Ewell’s revision of his life is basically banal and ineffective, Étaix and Carrière draw their comic possibilities from the theater of the absurd, conjuring up (with Étaix’s miraculous prop-man) beds that take to the streets, a spousal property settlement in which every object in the house has been split into halves, as well as a whole series of imaginary love scenes played out by the two men in a restaurant that cannot but convince everyone from the local gossips to the café waiter that Pierre and his friend Jacques are having a gay affair!

     Whereas, Ewell attempts, in his imagination, to madly embrace his prey upon a piano stool, Pierre actually speaks out about his passion for his young secretary—without knowing, however, that he pouring his heart out to the ugly secretary about to leave the company, who quickly locks the door to bar his escape!

     Throughout all this ridiculousness, Étaix maintains an aplomb and grace that has been compared, with good reason, to the dancing of Fred Astaire. It is perhaps, not accidently that the director reminisced, after the film, interviewed by Leonard Maltin and translated by Geneviève Bujold, that he works best with clowns and dancers. While Étaix perhaps sees his roots most clearly in the little tramp, I would argue that his personality is closer to the stoned face and the choreographed agility of Keaton. And like Keaton (and to a certain degree Chaplin) the marvel of his movements are that they actually occurr in real space instead of being recreated through computer simulation. As Étaix argues, “they were real, not something made up.” The beds truly rode down country lanes. “We closed off the streets, but a car still came up to us as the bed flew past,” he recalls.

     Like Richard Sherman (the Tom Ewell character), Pierre does not go through with his imagined affair. In the American film, it is a combination of guilt, fear of discovery, and jealousy that finally extinguishes his passion for Monroe. In Le grand amour it is his own being that finally reveals to himself who he actually is. As he begins to talk to the young beauty over dinner, he speaks of nothing but the office. It is clear that, despite his seeming entrapment in Florence’s world, it is precisely the place in which he most comfortable. He is a business man at heart, running a tannery, and as he begins to reveal himself, he grows older and older by the minute in her eyesas well as in ours and, most importantly, in his own. Just as he has earlier wished that he were younger (in cinematic terms, becoming younger) before calling for his secretary, who arrives at his office door as a child of 10 years of age, so now he leaves the dinner comprehending the truth. “I have wanted to tell you something,” he begins, “I no longer love you.”

     Florence returns from her vacation just in time, but he cannot find her at the station. When he does finally encounter her, she looks younger, refreshed; so too, she tells him, does he. She has disembarked with a young handsome man, who stands holding her bags. Pierre is outraged. Who is the young man? Does she give her bags up to just anyone? So the couple goes arguing down the street, their discussion clearly providing fodder for the gossips for months.

     When asked why he turned the action from their argument away to the distracted clearing up of the café waiter and the final shrug of a drunkard (another clown) who appeared throughout the film, Étaix commented: “I did not want to ‘end’ the film with any conclusion, good or bad. It may be that the fight between the two is the first time they are really talking to one another. But I did not want to say that. I wanted to turn the audiences’ attention away from whatever they thought the ending might really be. There is no one answer, no one ending.” The danger that puts all of Étaix’s characters on a kind of circus high-wire, remains. We can never know for sure whether they will balance themselves and walk across the tent-tops or tragically fall.

Los Angeles, November 17, 2011

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