[This introduction to Pierre Étaix's The Great Love was presented on June 27, 2013 at the Webster University Moore Auditorium as a part of the 2013 Classic French Film Festival.]
It’s a unique pleasure to stand before an audience of fellow cinephiles and introduce a film that can accurately be labeled a lost gem. Pierre Étaix’s 1969 feature, The Great Love, is such a film. Until recently, it had been missing in action for over four decades, along with most of filmmaker’s works. Due to legal snarls and poor preservation, Étaix's films had languished unseen by the vast majority of the contemporary public. Even Francophiles who were aware of his reputation and influence did not have access to his catalog. This tragedy has now been remedied. Moreover, now that his films have been resurrected for theatrical and home video appreciation, viewers are presented with an uncommon opportunity to experience a director’s work with virgin eyes. To date there are no book-length English-language biographies of Étaix or retrospectives on his filmography. His features and shorts have not been subjected to decades of exhaustive critical analysis and commentary. They are in, a word, still fresh, their newly exposed surfaces clean, sharp, and untouched by the conventional wisdom that often covers films like an oxidized crust.
This is an especially precious circumstance with respect to The Great Love, which is Étaix's first color feature, his last narrative feature, and his finest cinematic achievement. It’s easy to enthuse over the shagginess and frivolity of his first film, The Suitor, or the ambition and earnestness of his circus fable, Yoyo. The Great Love, however, feels truly special, like a hardy hybrid species that blends together the best qualities of its forebears with novel new features. As with all great films, it resists easy categorization. At times, it seems to be a pitch-black domestic comedy concerning the miseries of married life and the foolishness of infatuation. In other moments it resembles a more gently philosophical work that poses questions about identity and contentment. Turn it this way and it appears to be little more than a delivery system for a succession of charming sight gags. Rotate it that direction and one can see a experimental work that continually upends the viewer’s expectations regarding the language of cinema.
The narrative core of the film is marvelously simple. Étaix and his co-scripter, the renowned French screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière , often began their collaborations with a premise that could be conveyed in a single sentence. In the case of The Great Love, the story is one of the oldest in fiction: a married man contemplates an affair with a younger woman. From this seed, the scenarists summon forth a colorful bourgeois backdrop populated by vibrantly realized comic characters. Étaix, as usual, plays an exaggerated version of himself, here presented as a hard-working married homme who can’t quite shed his rascally, discontented leanings. Unthinkingly, he once settled down with Florence (Annie Fratellini), the proverbial Nice Girl from a Good Family. And so he finds himself, ten years later, playing the role of a devoted husband, dutiful son-in-law, and spit-polish member of the nouveau riche. All of which makes him secretly (if only modestly) unhappy. Into Pierre’s comfortable yet glum existence flutters the divine Agnès (Nicole Calfan), a luminous vision of French beauty who happens to be two or three decades his junior. He is immediately smitten, and inasmuch as the film has a dramatic arc, it consists of the ensuing multi-dimensional struggle between Pierre’s dreamy romanticism, his moral conscience, and the ice-cold waters of reality.
More so than any other feature film that Étaix made, The Great Love demonstrates why he should not be regarded as merely a clown (or illustrator or writer or educator) who happened to create films. In this feature, one can observe ample evidence that he is a film artist. Rather than relying on wordplay and wisecracks, Étaix employs visuals, music, and sound effects to create his gags. Unlike most comedies since the advent of sound, The Great Love is not a film that can be quoted to one’s friends for an easy chuckle—it must be seen and heard to be appreciated. The film’s finest moments are joyously cinematic, featuring gags that are broadly theatrical in spirit but dependent on cinematography and editing for their effect. In one of the film’s standout sequences, Étaix depicts a daisy chain of malicious neighborhood gossip without revealing what precisely is being whispered. As in the Telephone Game, Pierre’s banal encounter with a passing woman evolves in each successive retelling into an ever-more-scandalous indiscretion. This elaborate joke works so wonderfully because of the way that Étaix cunningly utilizes repetitions and variations to create escalating absurdity.
This is but one example of the ways in which The Great Love exploits its medium to splendid effect. Étaix often uses cuts, composition, and camera movement to create his visual punchlines. He is fond of dropping a playful reveal into a shot reverse shot, and of pulling out from a close-up in order to recontextualize the action for humorous effect. At times, he toys with the conventions of narrative cinema to prod at the Fourth Wall. In an early scene, the narrating Pierre keeps revising a flashback when he cannot recall exactly where he sat at a particular café—to the eventual exasperation of the waiter. Other memorable aspects of the film are less about cinematic method than the pure magic of the possible. In the film’s most pointedly bizarre sequence, Pierre dreams of his bed gliding out onto a motorway in the French countryside, where he and the lovely Agnès pass other pajama-clad drivers. Étaix and his crew have never explained exactly how this rolling bedframe effect was achieved, which is emblematic of the director’s whimsical approach to cinema. Like an illusionist, he is loathe to reveal too much, lest the spell be broken.
Étaix’s sensibilities were shaped not only by the traditions of French clowning, but also by silent and classical era film comedians such as Buster Keaton, Max Linder, and Laurel and Hardy. Notwithstanding the film’s minimal dialog and reliance on visual gags, however, The Great Love never feels like a throwback or an homage to an earlier epoch of moviemaking. Like the works of Étaix's contemporary and fellow Frenchman Jacques Tati, the film seems to exist in its own category, somehow at once old-fashioned and cutting-edge. If The Great Love has a spiritual antecedent in cinema, it is found not in live action comedy features, but in animated short films. Like Walt Disney Productions’ landmark Silly Symphonies of the 1930s, Étaix's film possesses an appealing blend of well-oiled cinematic craftsmanship, precise comic intuition, and nervy artistic experimentation. And as in the animated work of Chuck Jones, Tex Avery, and Friz Freleng in subsequent decades, The Great Love has a somewhat absurd, freewheeling sense of humor that employs well-worn comedy conventions to explore film's surrealist potential. Even so, what ultimately leaves the strongest impression is the mesmerizing self-assurance of Étaix's feature. Like a truly timeless cartoon, The Great Love feels both lighthearted and completely uncompromised—the work of an artist who has gracefully channeled his own creative excitement directly into his film.