An exquisite evening at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences on Wednesday night, when two beautifully refurbished films by the comic French filmmaker, Pierre Étaix, 82, got rare American screenings.
Étaix, who started as young man in circus and remained faithful to clowns, casting them in cameo roles in his films, was present in the house that Oscar built.
This fits. “Heureux Anniversaire” (snippet above), a b/w slice of Parisian life both ravishing and hilarious, won the Academy Award for Live Action Short Subject in 1962. After seeing the short, we got a feature, “Le Grand Amour” (1969), which poured forth more delicious Buster Keaton and Jacques Tati-inspired brilliance, this time in color, from Étaix and his writing partner, Jean-Claude Carrière, a giant of a scenarist.
Following the two films, the comedian-auteur and buddy of Jerry Lewis spoke with film critic, Leonard Maltin, whose comprehensive and glowing essay on Étaix was included in the Academy program. “What worries me most,” he told Maltin, “is that the seventh art has been damaged by television. To see you all gathered for a film … I’m very touched to just hear people laughing.”
His influences? Keaton, of course, and Stan Laurel. Chaplin? “Incomparable, inégalable,” he murmured.
Étaix began in film working for the comedy maestro, Tati, on “Mon Oncle.”
“I met Tati to get advice on a number for the circus. He asked me to work for him [doing drawings]. From Tati I learned the sense of a joke. But other than that, [due to Tati’s anal work method], it was 4.5 years of pure hell.” The description struck this viewer as laden with appreciation.
The normally skillful Maltin lost his way in the thicket of the choppy translation provided to Étaix by actress Geneviève Bujold. Native French speakers in the audience were calling out words in exasperation. The Academy honors craft; simultaneous translation is a craft as well. It’s a dogged task and Bujold wasn’t up to it.
Maltin’s interview also vexed in its emphasis on movie-making process to the exclusion of content. Guys, “auteur” means you conceive a movie and you direct it. In “Le Grand Amour,” Étaix examines love, marriage, hypocrisy, fidelity, bourgeois values, compromise, and morality. We’re all adults. Can we please talk about what movies are about as well as how they are made?