Saturday, December 10, 2016

Pierre Étaix | Yo Yo

comedy in (e)motion
by Douglas Messerli

Jean-Claude Carrière and Pierre Étaix (screenplay), Pierre Étaix (director) YoYo / 1965

One of the greatest of French clown actors-directors, Pierre Étaix, along with the wonderful Jacques Tati, are probably why the French so took to the American clown Jerry Lewis. I still don’t quite comprehend their misunderstanding in this; the French clowns are quite brilliant and intellectual in their gags and pratfalls, while Lewis is corny and kitsch; but that is perhaps just a problem of translation. What they saw on the screen reminded them, clearly, of the French models—of which there were several others. Of course Chaplin and Keaton were popular with the French as well, but that was long before Étaix’s and Tati’s time.
      I love Étaix, even more that Tati, but that’s just my personal opinion, and I know many a critic who would clearly disagree. In the US, in part because of rights problems which for decades kept his films from being distributed in the US and, back in France, which allowed his films to deteriorate in storage, his films were never quite appreciated. Recently, several of these works have finally been restored and, after even more delays, released on Criterion DVDs and Blue-Rays, thank heaven. Yo Yo was a particular favorite of Lewis’, and of Étaix himself.
       When Yo Yo originally appeared in American theaters for a brief period in 1967, two years after its French premiere, the contrarian Bosley Crowther of The New York Times wrote:

                   Mr. Etaix is marvelously talented. He is a master of

                   subtle mimicry, and he plays all sorts of charming
                   little incidents with great sensitivity and wit. ... But 
                   that's the trouble with his picture. It's too casual, 
                   fragmented and loose. It's as though Mr. Etaix were 
                   writing his script as he goes along, tossing in scenes 
                   he remembers from somebody else's film, letting 
                   himself do something (he also plays several minor 
                   roles without taking credit for them) more to display 
                   his virtuosity than to develop a story and character.

But then, he probably wouldn’t have liked the very popular French film, Michael Hazanavicius’s The Artist either, a movie that owes a great deal of its style and charm to Yo Yo.

Indeed, the 1965 film begins, just like The Artist, as a spoof on the silent film, echoing many of the tropes of Chaplin and, more particularly, Ernst Lubistch’s German silent, The Oyster Princess, but replacing the spoiled daughter with an absolutely bored master (played by Étaix himself). In this large castle of a house, the wealthy owner of vast inherited wealth, spends his days with hundreds of fawning and no-so-fawning butlers and other servants,  including a bevy of dancing girls who pleasure him each night, after performing a wonderful Charleston route, by sexily removing his spats and unlacing his shoes. 
       The impossible large cadre of helpers certainly open every door for this richest of rich boys, drive him slowly around his lawns in order to walk his beloved dog, serve him up anything he might desire, and even help him to play with a model ship on the lake beside his chateau, but nothing can remove his ennui except an occasional look at the picture he keeps in the drawer of his desk of a woman he has once loved and his pocketed yoyo, which, strangely enough he barely maneuver.

       Etaix plays this bored playboy with Tati-like resolve, without ever making us feel his  absurd character is a type. But following him around in his attempts to entertain himself seems almost the opposite of Chaplin’s tramp. Etaix has it all, but would definitely like to be the tramp, or, at least, a circus clown, which we realize when he stops a passing circus caravan and offers to pay them to perform just for him. A young child clown escapes into the mansion, falls in love with the place, including its ridiculous serving men, one of whom takes alcoholic breaks by hiding his bottle and glass inside the confines of a still-life painting, and exits on the back of the circus elephant.

       And it is at this passing circus that Étaix discovers his former lover, now an equestrian performer, who lives in a circus van with the boy who has escaped for a peek into the chateau, and who, it turns out, is the Étaix character’s illegitimate son.
       He loses the girl—and newly discovered son—again, only to be saved this time by the Great Depression, which forces him out of the chateau and into a sound movie, where he, quite literally, hitches up with his lover’s van, and with his son, a young clown (Philippe Dionnet) and his ever happy and always-singing wife (Luce Klein), they take to the local town squares to perform.

       Once again, Étaix’s visual and narrative gags are almost always the opposite of Chaplin’s. If you’re driving in the front and your van-bound wife needs a cigarette, simply clip the  package onto a connecting line and send it back on the shoulder of a passing motorcyclist; if you want to give you wife in the back a smooch, let your young son take over the driving wheel and crawl across the top of the van to reach her, even if, on the way back—if you find yourself caught up in the branches of an overhanging tree—simply drop into a passing hayrick and jump back into the driver’s seat! No matter what difficulties Étaix and his family suffer, they seem to have a natural knack of riding themselves of it. 
       Even on the road, young YoYo is home-schooled by his wife—despite his father’s attempts to slip him the answers through card tricks and other sneaky devices. The only time they even seem to encounter any real conflict is when, having arrived in a small town square, they discover posters for another famous film circus act: Anthony Quinn and Giulietta Masina from Fellini’s La Strada!

      But all children, even including the cute Yo Yo, grow up, and World War II, into which he  is inducted, breaks up the happy family, as the elder Yo Yo and his wife are forced to go their own way, traveling around the world to perform, while their son goes off to War.
      Even though he (now Étaix also playing the son) is now famous as a circus clown, he necessarily serves out his military time, returning to the circus as a kind of hero. The circus, however, no longer fulfills him, and, as the inheritor of the now collapsing abandoned castle, he is determined to build it up again, slowly, piece by piece, into the grandeur he has experienced as a child.

      With the rise of TV and other new entertainment forms (including film), the circus has clearly lost its audience; and in the next scene we see the rather scruffy YoYo playing a fiddle on the streets for a few coins. When he attempts to approach a restaurant customer for a few coins, the man ignores him, the Étaix character attempting a more spirited version of his mother’s famous song (composed by Jean Paillaud), which, nonetheless, gets him nowhere; when he rises to leave the restaurant, we realize that the wealthy-seeming diner, is himself carrying a violin, perhaps playing in a orchestra for just a little bit more money.
      Yet, suddenly—paralleling all of this movie’s incredible shifts—we realize that YoYo has been simply filming the scene, and is now a movie star. Soon after, we realize that he now a movie executive, and we see the remarkable progress he has made in completely transforming his father’s chateau into its former glory.
       Celebrating the reopening of the palace, Yo Yo invites the elite of Paris, all reprobates who seem more desperate for attention and sex than anything else. Yet all the while, we sense he is seeking the arrival of his mother and father, to show them what he has accomplished. When they suddenly show up, along with his former, would-be girlfriend, Isolina (Claudine Auger), they refuse even to leave the van in which they’ve arrived. They are happy and know who they


are, while the now wealthy son will obviously have to suffer his father’s former fate. His former elephant friend saves the day, charging into the party and rescuing the now ready to be released Yo Yo II, who rides his back, once again, to safety.
       Yes, there are many, many gags—even a satire on the notion of writing them, wherein the supposed gag writer, who, after admitting he has been unable to come up with any new gags, becomes the subject of a long gag where he continues to drop all of his collection of them—but if this isn’t a quite coherent and intelligently comic statement about wealth, loss, love, family, and comedy then I’ve simply seen some other movie than the critics of its day saw. 
      And I have to agree with Jerry Lewis—perhaps for the first time in my life—that Yo Yo is a comic masterpiece.

Los Angeles, December 10, 2016

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