Pierre Étaix, Director and Slapstick Actor, Dies at 87


Photo

Pierre Étaix at his home in France in 2015.

Credit
Bertrand Guay/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Pierre Étaix, a French director of seamlessly choreographed slapstick films, including “Happy Anniversary,” which won an Oscar for best live-action short subject in 1963, died on Friday in Paris. He was 87.

The cause was complications of an intestinal infection, his wife, Odile, told Agence France-Presse.

Mr. Étaix (pronounced ay-TEX), an actor as well as a director, specialized in a deadpan visual comedy, animated by sight gags, funny sound effects and fantasy sequences that harked back to the silent films of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Max Linder as well as his own background as a circus performer.

He was an assistant to Jacques Tati on the 1958 film “Mon Oncle,” providing gags, designing sets and illustrating the poster, before striking out on his own in 1961 with “La Rupture” (“The Break-up”).

With a screenplay by Jean-Claude Carrière, who would later write “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie” and other films for Luis Buñuel, it told the story of a boyfriend who tries to answer a rejection letter with one of his own but finds himself in an unequal battle with his pen, his inkwell and his desk.

Buoyed by the film’s success, Mr. Étaix teamed up again with Mr. Carrière on “Happy Anniversary” and several longer films, “The Suitor” (1963), “Yoyo” (1965), “As Long as You’ve Got Your Health” (1966) and “Le Grand Amour” (1969).

In the sweetly melancholy “Yoyo,” often considered his masterpiece, Mr. Étaix played the dual roles of a wealthy idler and his son, who grows up to become the celebrated clown Yoyo. “Le Grand Amour,” his first color film, included a dream sequence with a traveling bed that remains a touchstone of French comedy.

Although he fell out of favor in the 1970s, and sank into obscurity when legal obstacles made it impossible to show his films until 2009, he won the admiration of the American directors Woody Allen, David Lynch and Terry Gilliam. Jerry Lewis, whom the French saw as a kindred spirit, cast him in his film “The Day the Clown Cried,” which was never released.

On a petition to bring the films of Mr. Étaix back to the public, Mr. Lewis 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.”

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Pierre Étaix in the 1965 film “Yoyo.”

Credit
Criterion Collection

Pierre Étaix was born on Nov. 23, 1928, in Roanne, in the Loire region. His father, Pierre, was a merchant, and his mother, the former Berthe Tacher, was a homemaker. As a child, he became infatuated with the circus and with the films of the great Hollywood silent clowns.

“I loved the fact that all of these artists were coming from musical halls and vaudeville and the circus,” he told The Los Angeles Times in 2011. “Their comedy was derived from these sources.”

After attending the local lycée, where he showed a talent for drawing, he studied and worked under the stained-glass master Théodore-Gérard Hanssen. He later moved to Paris and began working as a magazine illustrator, a cabaret comic and a circus performer with the famous clown Nino.

An interview with Mr. Tati in 1954 proved fateful. “Tati looked at my drawings and thought they had a lot of the humor and observational skills, and I was really good at writing gags,” Mr. Étaix told The Los Angeles Times. “So he asked me to help to prepare ‘Mon Oncle.’ That is how I entered the world of cinema. Not having any idea of cinematic language before then, I learned everything from Tati.”

His ascendancy was brilliant but brief. “Land of Milk and Honey” (1971), an experimental documentary that satirized French consumerism through man-in-the-street interviews, alienated critics so profoundly that the film was pulled from theaters two weeks after its release.

Mr. Étaix, unable to find backing for his films, returned to his first love, the circus. He and his wife, Annie Fratellini, a circus clown who played his wife in “Le Grand Amour,” founded the National Circus School to replenish the diminishing ranks of French circus performers. She died in 1997.

He returned from the wilderness in 1985 with a successful play, “Monsieur Is Getting Old.” Two years later, he directed and played the starring role in his adaptation of the play for television.

In 1989, for the bicentennial of the French Revolution, he joined forces with Mr. Carrière once more on “I Write in Space.” Shot in the giant Omnimax format, it was shown at the Geode, a dome-shaped performance hall in Parc de la Villette in Paris.

In 2009, when it became possible to show his films again, the Festival Lumière in Lyons honored Mr. Étaix with the retrospective “Vive Pierre Étaix!” Art houses and film societies around the world followed suit, including the Film Forum in New York, which presented its retrospective in 2012. A year later, The Criterion Collection issued restored versions of his films on DVD.

“He is the last star of slapstick in Europe, if not the world,” the director Alain Jomier told The Guardian in 2009. “In France there was Tati and then there was Étaix and now there are no more.”

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