Like any less recognized gag-based comic, Pierre Étaix invites comparisons to a multitude of his stylistic peers: Keaton, Tati, Linder. It’s not that the man doesn’t have a style of his own—a light, delicate touch pervades his films (even when the most base impulses drive his actions, such as a suddenly awakened libido in The Suitor)—but rather that Étaix excels at so many characters.
The eponymous suitor is entirely out of his element, self-conscious in his incongruity with his environment. He is acutely aware of his surroundings, but ever so slightly out of sync. Unlike in Keaton’s films, where being out of sync is sometimes violent, Etaix faces instead of pratfalls a repeated frustration of desires.
Much of Étaix’s humor isn’t based on sympathy for his character, necessarily, but, much like Tati, on his relationship to the absurd spaces that he finds himself navigating.
In 1965’s Yoyo, Étaix’s playboy is impractical space personified as luxury, to great humorous effect.
Étaix’s setups aren’t limited to one character or one pathos. He executes a wide range of gags, but is generous with them, too, lending out delightful bits to peripheral characters in a way that fleshes out a chaotic world, while underscoring the fact that Étaix’s characters are still merely everymen wending their way along.
In his films, Étaix often imbues objects with more agency than most of his human characters. A bed takes a straying husband straight to his attractive young secretary; a master striptease is performed by way of a shoe; rolls and rolls of film swarm a documentarian who is trying to make sense of it all.
Le Grand Amour
Land of Milk and Honey
Pierre Étaix’s newly restored films excitingly display a malleable comic and actor. Capable of so many characters and styles, it’s no wonder it takes combined comparison to so many of film’s comedy greats to describe him.