With a mere handful of titles to his C.V., French comedian/autuer Pierre Étaix, now in his 80s, must be thrilled to see his films lovingly restored and out on a Criterion set after legal tangles kept them hidden for decades. Showing strong influence from early French silent comedian Max Linder and from Buster Keaton (in profile Étaix looks a bit like Keaton in the ‘30s), the films are more in the mode of Jacques Tati’s observational musings by way of Fellini. But don’t worry, he wears his references lightly. In YOYO, he’s a rich sap (a bit like Keaton’s Rollo Treadway in THE NAVIGATOR/’24), who loses his fortune in three reels (shot silent-style) before adding TALK and joining the circus where an old flame and a young son await. Jumping ahead, he switches roles to play his own grown kid as YOYO the Clown. Moving forward, YOYO entertains during the war; little traveling circuses die; YOYO finds new success on tv while losing a bit of his soul & the old intimate person-to-person contact. Étaix is fine in the double role and moves the story along with playful touches and handsomely staged events. He has a particular fondness for playing off contrasts in scale, often using toy-like models for a gag. What’s missing are any laughs. ANY laughs. As in, not a one. Even chuckles are rare. For all its charm, the film never gets past a certain level of intellectual appreciation. It has the shape of comedy, it even has comic content, but he doesn’t quite cross over.* It’s a silhouette portrait of comedy rather than a fully fleshed out work.
SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Here’s an example: Hoping to end it all, the formerly rich Étaix needs a chair to jump off of. Enter repo-man; Exit chair; So much for suicide. The idea’s there, but Étaix brings neither comic impulse, rude life,nor development to the execution.
WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Happily, on the very same disk is Étaix’s follow-up pic, TANT QU’ON A LA SANTÉ (AS LONG AS YOU’VE GOT YOUR HEALTH)/’66. Commercially no more successful than YOYO, it was reworked from a story film back into the series of shorts originally envisioned (with one replacement), and it’s infinitely better for the change, not afraid to get a little dirty for a laugh. A huge lift after the cultured sensibilities and sad clown aspects of YOYO. First up, a scary bedtime tale, elegant & funny; then a trip to the cinema; Modern Neurasthenic Times; and a final pastorale featuring a pair of frustrated romantic picnickers, an incompetent hunter, and a fence mender dressed a la Buster Keaton, pork pie hat and all. Perhaps Étaix is just more comfortable making shorts.