A delightful series shines a new spotlight on French comedian Pierre Étaix
After a circus tour, he made his first color feature, 1969's Le Grand Amour. It had just a wisp of plot (involving the specter of infidelity threatening hero Pierre's marriage to Florence, played by Étaix's actual spouse Annie Fratellini), but a surfeit of exquisitely realized gags including a marvelous, surreal dream sequence with locomotive beds.
But then he made an apparently fatal mistake: taking an interesting gamble on 1971's Land of Milk and Honey, a caustic documentary (and, to an extent, parody of documentaries) that starts out as deliberately clichéd ode to La France then rapidly turns into a prolonged sneer at its citizens. Dwelling on talentless would-be singers in some Gong Show-like forum and ordinary, unattractive bodies on full display at the beach, no more impressed by the hippies than the bourgeoise, its portrait of a vapidly complacent populace struck a nerve when the 1969-shot film was finally released in 1971. It was the wrong nerve — the movie was loathed, and feels mean-spirited even today. Still, it hardly should have ended Étaix's entire screen career as star and director.
Somehow it did, though, more or less. Étaix found financing for just one more feature of his own (1987's autumnal Monsieur is Getting Older, not in the Rafael series), otherwise occupying himself with more stage work and TV. He also acted for an interesting mix of directors including Nagisa Oshima, Philip Kaufman, Otar Iosseliani, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, and Aki Kaurismäki — in addition to having earlier worked with Robert Bresson, Louis Malle, and (in the notorious, unreleased The Day the Clown Cried) Jerry Lewis. Now in his mid-80s, he's stuck around long enough to enjoy his prime work being rediscovered and celebrated for its sometimes hilarious, often near-balletic ingenuity.
"PIERRE ÉTAIX: LOST AND FOUND"
Dec. 7-13, $10.50
Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center
1118 Fourth St., San Rafael