Pierre Étaix - The Funniest Filmmaker You’ve Never Heard Of

Abhishek Srivastava - 69 weeks ago

He was the funny bone behind films of Jacques Tati, worked closely with the great French screenwriter Jean Claude Carriére and won an Oscar for his short film. Pierre Étaix remained a forgotten genius until a petition by artists revived his work.

(A still from The Suitor (1962) Image courtesy - Janus Films)

He was the funny bone behind the films of Jacques Tati, worked closely with the great French screenwriter Jean Claude Carriére, won an Oscar for his short film and appeared in films like Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket, Federico Fellini’s documentary The Clowns and Aki Kaurismaki’s Le Havre. Los Angeles Times had once dubbed him as ‘the funniest filmmaker you’ve never heard of’. The above descriptions point to Pierre Étaix, the master of slapstick comedy and the clown from France who continued the lineage of Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Laurel & Hardy and Max Linder with his films. The genius of Pierre Étaix remained forgotten for as many as four decades - blame it all on a legal hassle. The world simply failed to see his labour of love because of a legal dispute with the distribution company. Comedy great and close friend, Jerry Lewis while paying his tribute after the death of the comedy maverick had remarked that there were only two occasion when he understood the meaning of the term genius. The first was when he looked up the meaning of the word in the dictionary and the second was when he met Pierre Étaix. 

(A still from Happy Anniversary (1962) (Image courtesy - Janus Films)

The man was almost forgotten until more than 50000 artists, mainly from the US and Europe, petitioned to save his work from going into oblivion. His repertoire of slapstick comedy, which included a mix of short films and feature films, had not been seen by the world since the time they were made in the 60s and 70s because of copyright issues with the distribution company. The cause was Étaix’s signature on the contract. A signature campaign, which included stalwarts like Woody Allen, Terry Gilliam, Jean Luc Godard, Charlotte Rampling, was organized in 2009 and demand was made to free his films from the clutches of the contract. The legal battle that followed bore fruition and the films were rereleased under his own supervision.

(A still from Le Grand Amour (1969) (Image courtesy - Janus Films)

Étaix was born in Roanne, France and later worked as a magazine illustrator but early in his life he had decided on becoming a clown in circus and cabarets. To give vent to his ambition, he armed himself with all the skills that were required to become a clown and thus apart from mastering musical instruments like piano and violin, he also learnt dancing and gymnastic. He was completely taken aback with Jacques Tati’s Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday after he moved to Paris and post that his only ambition was to get an entry into Tati’s company. It was also the phase when Tati was busy working on Mon Oncle. Pierre assisted him on his film in the capacity of assistant director and script writer. His work on Mon Oncle was to yield something better. Director Robert Bresson often came on the sets to meet Tati and it was during those visits, he developed a rapport with the filmmaker which culminated in him getting a role in Pickpocket. Pierre was one of the pickpockets in the film and in an earlier interview he had recalled that the search for perfection made Bresson go for countless takes. The experience had left him both confused and terrified nonetheless he admitted that it was an enriching experience. 

He later jumped into direction with help of his friend Jean Claude Carriére, who also wrote masterpieces like The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and The Tin Drum, in the 60s and together worked for almost a decade. Their mutual love of comedy champions of Hollywood made them decide to do something on similar lines. The result was Rupture in 1961 and Happy Anniversary in 1962. Happy Anniversary also took Pierre ad Carriére to LA in 1963 where they were awarded an Oscar for best short subject. The series of short films soon came to an end and the duo then jumped on to production of full length feature films. Their very first collaboration - The Suitor which released in theatres in 1963 proved to be a blockbuster and made him a household name. The film also spawned a controversy as few scenes of the film were straight lift from an earlier Buster Keaton film. Étaix’s next film Yoyo made Jerry Lewis his lifelong fan. So enamored was Lewis by the film that he met the actor comedian at a Parisian hotel and later offered him a film. 

Étaix’s first colored film, The Great Love, also introduced him to his future wife, a circus clown herself and they together featured in Fellini’s documentary The Clowns in 1970. Étaix’s last feature – Land of Milk and Honey in 1971 was a commercial failure and after that he almost disappeared from the screen. When he reappeared fifteen years later, he was seen in films like Max Mon Amour, films of Tati and Aki Kaurismaki’s Le Havre

Before his films were restored in 2009, they were not available to the masses for over two decades. The original producers to his films were simply not exploiting the rights in terms of theatrical and home video release of Pierre’s films. The legal battle that followed later took a turn in 2004 when Pierre signed a deal with another distribution company to ensure their release. This company too showed a lackadaisical attitude for their release and restoration. Finally, in 2009 he was allowed by the court to take ownership of his films which was aided by a petition submitted to the French cultural minister which had more than 50000 signatories. 

The maverick director from France had a flicker of glory during the 2007 edition of Cannes Film Festival when one of his films - Yoyo was screened amidst an excited crowd. Groupama Foundation, the company which was responsible for restoring the film was later on sued by Gavroche, the distribution company based out of Paris. After the curtain was lifted on his film, in 2010, he travelled to Los Angeles and attended the screening of his films as part of “Pierre Étaix – The Laughter Returns”. Later Criterion Collections also released a box set of his films which included The Suitor, Yoyo, As Long as You’ve Got Your Health, Le Grand Amour and Land of Milk and Honey. The box set was nothing less than a present for cinephiles across the world. 

The Oscar-winning actor, director and clown at the age of 87 died at a Paris hospital because of intestinal infection. “Pierre Étaix was the last star of slapstick comedy in Europe, if not the world,” was told to The Guardian by director Alain Jomier and his words truly summarized the importance of the actor in the world of cinema. 


Pierre Étaix / Rupture / Happy Anniversary / Yoyo / The Suitor / Le Grand Amour / Land of Milk and Honey / Jacques Tati / Robert Bresson / Jean Claude Carriére / Mon Once / Academy Award / Oscar

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