The Comic World Of Pierre Étaixby Vandana Kumar September 10 2022, 12:00 am Estimated Reading Time: 13 mins, 51 secs
Vandana Kumar writes: ‘Le Grand Amour’ (The Great Love) 1969 is a French comedy that introduced me to its director Pierre Étaix. It made me go hunting for some more of his madcap and surreal cinema, the very moment I finished viewing it.
Jerry Lewis once said: “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.”
The silent era had many names to boast of when it came to comedy in the physical space - Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd and Laurel and Hardy. With the advent of sound this kind of cinema started to decline but slapstick was kept alive by a few. Laurel and Hardy made a transition into the era of the talkies but largely each period had its distinct comic stars. In America it was ‘Jerry Lewis’ and France had its ‘Jacques Tati’ followed by ‘Pierre Étaix’.
The influence on Pierre Étaix of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin was very obvious. Back home it was Tati, with whom he worked on ‘Mon Oncle’. But it didn’t become imitation – it remained an influence! Pierre created a niche œuvre as director-actor. Regrettably a very limited one – only five features, including one documentary and four shorts. Happy Anniversary in the category of ‘Best short subject’ won him an Academy Award.
Tati as we all know, was not just an ‘in your face ha-ha comedian’ but his films were deep satires on society - from machines and modern times to a critic of consumerism and packaging of holidays. Pierre Étaix, too, wasn’t just about gags and slapstick.
I also discovered why my father exposed me to Tati in my childhood at festivals and retrospectives while I was growing up in Kolkata, and not to Pierre Étaix. For several years his films were tied up in copyright issues, which tragically resulted in their quality deterioration. Was it not for the work of several organizations, particularly the Technicolor Foundation for Cinema Heritage and Groupama Gan Foundation for Cinema, that restored the director’s films, I would have been deprived of the treat that was ‘Le Grand Amour’.
Put aside all the absurdity, quirkiness and of course the ‘comedy element’ of ‘Le Grand Amour’, what we have at the heart of the story is an age old premise of a mid-life crisis and a middle aged man falling in love with or obsessing a much younger women. A story that has been played out in cinema across genres, from dramas to thrillers, erotica and of course comedy. Étaix talks of the film somewhere and says the concept centered on the vaudeville conceit - that of an older man attracted to a younger woman.
‘Pierre Étaix’ himself plays the role of another ‘Pierre’, one who is married to Florence (Annie Fratellini). He boasts that he could have married any one of numerous other women in his life earlier. The women of the neighborhood watch him like hawks, desperate to report any hint of infidelity. Tongues go wagging even when he says an innocent hello to someone or a polite good morning. His wedding is one that is regular, routine and as boring as any bourgeois marriage could be. All is well in humdrum routine till the arrival of a new secretary, the 18-year-old Agnès (Nicole Calfan). Pierre makes the most erratic decisions at work. Such is his belief that this is ‘The real thing’ for him, he gets more distracted from pressing regular office affairs. He is distant from the real world to a point of comic sadness.
The classic ‘Seven Year Itch’ gets timed to surreal madness. There is a haunting pathos about humans, their desire to love, their boredom from routine and the feeling that familial claptrap is tying them down. More than laughing out loud, the audience is smiling and nodding as they relate to keen observations of how we live and how we hide the real us time and again. The comedy is about our struggles to reconcile the two people that we are.
If we take Billy Wilder’s much celebrated ‘The Seven Year Itch’ (1955) or many similarly themed films, what we get is a fantasy and a swooning over the object of desire. The possibilities of getting the woman are remote and it remains at best an imagination. But here the most middle-aged Pierre comes tantalizing close to the person in question, the secretary responds to his overtures and flirtation in equal measure. They actual do end up on a dinner date when the wife is out for a few days for her ‘own time’. The wife too perhaps, feels the suffocation. That nothing happens when Pierre finally meets the secretary for a dinner and Pierre instead starts discussing the office and the possibilities of expansion, is another story. That the girl seemed willing is what makes this story different.
Most of the light hearted films revolving around this theme, squeeze in a subtle message - eventually it’s all a phase and the good men have to go back home. ‘Le Grand Amour’ is not about any messages for sure. Further what sets the film apart are the nice little and major scenes built around this story. They stand out as mini films on their own. Comic cinema has its own poetry and, here, images, imagined and real, keep crossing paths and taking the viewer on a ride of what was and what could have been. To begin with, did Pierre meet his wife-to-be on the terrace of the café? The various versions appear onscreen until the waiter himself ends the scene for an amused audience.
From Chaplin to Tati, most have used sounds to create little episodes around the main plot that have little to do with it, but are there to add to the overall bizarreness of the film. Étaix was no exception. So, at one time there is a crying baby heard at the other end of a telephone line. The film starts with a romantic song and an aerial view of the city. It cuts to a cathedral and noisy echoes there during a wedding ceremony and the sounds of squeaking shoes. There is a child spanked and weird attendees at the function. In his wife’s absence, Pierre is dutifully having dinner with his in-laws. It’s the perfect dull meal and no conversation, broken only by the sound of the nutcracker being passed around.
Why is the film called ‘Le Grand Amour’ - the Great Love? Because Pierre has had many loves, each could have been the Le Petit Amour, a smaller or lesser love in intensity. So, there is lady love ‘Irene’ from a very tender age, then there is Martine and finally he is introduced to Florence Girard (Annie Fratellini). That’s when he thinks it’s the real thing and is in a tearing hurry to exchange marriage wows. Some years of restlessness later, in walks the new secretary ‘Agnès’ - The Amour to end all previous ones. Coup de foudre (love at first sight). Only this one ends in deep comic sadness.
But before landing up making marriage wows, there is much that is comic with the earlier girlfriends. One of the previous girlfriends is introduced to us as a demure convent girl. She has all the virtues to make her good - she learns piano and Latin. She gets rejected because she has ‘Gone Bad’ and the camera cuts to her smoking outside. Pierre sends breakup notes to the previous two girlfriends. The letters could well have been identical minus the name change. Before we can feel sad for them, we see them enjoying a bit of the sun outdoor, on some sort of double date, reading Pierre’s break up notes with their respective boyfriends by their side.
The relationship with the wife gets sealed right from the first time Florence asks Pierre to visit her. The sprawling home and a father in law’s business seems an important indicator in deciding straight away that she is the one. The concept of the young lady trapping him into a marriage plays out. Home is not where the heart is in this case, but where the in-laws are. There is a job at the father-in-law’s (Louis Maïss) tannery firm. Monotony seeps into the bedroom as quickly as the wows are exchanged at the altar. The daily horrors include the in-laws’ living downstairs. They include the disaster of seeing a replica of his wife in the mother-in-law (played by ‘Ketty France’ of ‘Playtime’ fame). Adding to this romantic and sexual downer is the timing of the mother/daughter phone calls.
The family relationship is underscored in a classic Pierre Étaix manner by the scene in which, after hearing all the rumor mills gossip of her husband’s philandering in the park, the wife gets up to go home to “mamma”. The camera tracks her down the stairs. Pierre is pleading for her to be reasonable and that there was nothing. We watch her enter a room right below their room. The room that belongs to ‘Mamma’ and ‘Papa’.
Stifling Pierre in his marriage further is the dull nature of the family business. The tannery affairs are made further unexciting as he dreads the idea of facing the elderly rather unattractive supremely competent secretary. Outwardly Pierre and Florence smile and play happily married.
This leads to one of the most famous scenes for which the film is remembered. It is the marital twin bed of boredom on wheels. The twin beds in Pierre’s bedroom beg for some action. All the audience can imagine are snores of ennui. Pierre starts dreaming of the secretary and the bed gets transformed into a vehicle with wheels carrying him into the open countryside. The secretary and Pierre cuddle under the duvet as they see similar vehicles on the highway. A bed-auto is being repaired somewhere. They enter a traffic network of more beds and their reclining owners. This was the portion that had the Buñuelisque element. It was also a take-off on Godard’s ‘Weekend’ that happened a year earlier. The scene naturally ends with the bed going back from the dream into the dreary bedroom of the couple. What is the wife’s bedtime choice of reading? - Jane Eyre!
All the surreal scenes in the films – the beds becoming cars in the countryside, the spouses dividing everything literally into two in an imagined separation and the gossip mills here and there, layer the comedy with something above a drama and slapstick comedy. That it was written both by Pierre Étaix and his regular collaborator, Jean-Claude Carrière, probably has a lot to do with it. Carrière, the prolific screenwriter of European cinema, is best remembered for his work on Luis Buñuel’s later phase of French films. Most were narratives with surreal sequences all over. Bunuel’s masterpieces like The Belle de Jour and the Obscure Object of desire et al come to mind.
This is naturally no tear jerker and it is the sort of movie where heart breaks have you chuckling. The difference between ‘Le Grand Amour’ and a classic drama where there is temptation to have an affair is that here there is no sort of guilt. An Éric Rohmer film would have a moral compass. Characters in Rohmer’s stories usually come dangerously close to giving into temptation, till they finally go back to their spouse or partner. Even in light hearted comedies like ‘Seven-year itch’ there is guilt and chickening out.
Pierre in ‘Le Grand Amour’ backs out inexplicably for a lot of audience. There is no guilt or fear of the wife finding out. Florence is happily, too, doing her own number of a sea-side holiday.
Pierre ends up talking of office affairs on his date with the secretary and what the business prospects would be like in the future. Perhaps it’s the businessman at heart who comes to play. When there is no guilt trip and no fear of being caught, this could seem a little puzzling to the audience. Perhaps it is ageing that the camera wants to show us. He is seen as growing older and older. The secretary is seeing growing younger. He blurts out, “I have wanted to tell you something… I no longer love you.”
How come he never went ahead with the affair is the one thing that audiences have discussed because everyone had different interpretations and none of them involved the classic guilt. The audience gets so lost in tracing Pierre’s excitement over the young secretary, they kind of forget that there was a wife who was on her ‘me time’. When Florence returns from her vacation, Pierre lands up as the dutiful husband at the station but is unable to find her initially. The encounter is finally with a refreshed and far younger looking version of the Florence he was married too. He tells her she looks different and she tells him he does too. Did their respective individual time refresh them for rekindling the spark?
But that isn’t enough. She has disembarked with an incredibly young handsome man. A man who is patiently holding her bags. Could it be a young man smitten on her vacation and following her like a devoted pup? Could it be more? Pierre is furious and they go down the street with him asking her why the man was holding her bags.
So, while the last 40 minutes revolve around Pierre and his dreams regarding an affair with the secretary to spice up his life, it was his wife who returned totally changed and with a young man in tow. Some friends said it could have been platonic, some insisted it was an affair during the holidays.
What makes this comedy different from other conventional ones is that many of the scenes are left open-ended. ‘Le Grand Amour’ makes for some light hearted debate and difference of opinion. In Pierre’s own words “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 young Étaix first worked as a clown and after the films that happened to him, founded and directed a school for circus clowns. He was accompanied by Annie Fratellini (whom he married in the same year this film was made) the leading lady of ‘Le Grand Amour’. Not only was this the first clown school in the country, his wife was among the few lady clowns (as they were called) in France. Federico Fellini included the couple in a semi documentary called ‘The Clowns’.
Pierre Étaix’s Grand Amour has been described somewhere as a sort of Bunuel take on the bourgeois idiosyncrasies but a gentler version. Minus the mean streak while taking pot shots at the class, perhaps. The film effectively satires the dull middle class, the small-town gossip factory, and the absurd delusions of desire. As has been said for his mentor Jacques Tati - the same applies to Pierre Étaix’s cinema. Why infuse your film with clowns in make-up. All one has to do is sit somewhere and observe human beings to get all your comedy from. Even Woody Allen mentions Pierre Étaix often as one of the great influences on his writing. To think that Pierre Étaix’s body of work was almost lost to successive generations.