8 July 2006 | ctompkins1927
Award winning short indebted to Keaton and Tati
Pierre Etaix is an obscure and interesting figure in film history. Virtually unknown in the United States, Etaix carved out an odd niche for himself with his French comedies of the 1960's. In a way, the comic was simply following a course set for him by much more famous screen comedians. He is often considered the "French Buster Keaton," a moniker that is quite appropriate. Like Keaton, Etaix often wears a dead-pan mask with subtle and melancholic expressions. Also, his comedy borrows from Buster a concern for the individual at odds with a mad, conspiring universe. To further show Keaton's mark on his comic landscape, Etaix's feature film Le Soupirant (1962) is a remake of Buster's Seven Chances (1925).
Etaix also owes a significant debt to a fellow French comedian. Jacques Tati once employed Etaix as a gag-man on his masterpiece, Mon Oncle (1958). Etaix learned well from his former boss and integrated those lessons into his own work. This is obvious in several ways. First, Etaix democratizes comedy by allowing other characters to contribute laughs. In fact, it is sometimes difficult to discern if there is a main character. This concept is a major theme in Tati's work and can be studied in Mon Oncle and in Play Time (1967), where it reaches its greatest expression. Like Tati, Etaix also uses sound effects in unusual and exciting ways. This is especially true of his first short Rupture (1961). Finally, both Tati and Etaix use dialogue sparingly, preferring to tell their stories visually. Interestingly, this technique ties both artists back to Keaton, who envisioned his own sound comedies to be executed in this manner. Unfortunately, he seldom had the opportunity to practice this theory.
Happy Anniversary (1962) is a short film that showcases these influences. Its slight and simple plot has Etaix going through various hurdles to complete errands while racing home to an anniversary dinner prepared by his wife. Along the way, we are introduced to characters whose daily activities are disrupted by Etaix's own travails. For example, Etaix finds that his car is impossibly pinned between two other cars along a curb. He catches the attention of the driver of the front car who is in the middle of a shave in the barbershop across the street. The driver, frothed in shaving cream, obliges Etaix by moving his vehicle and driving around the block. As Etaix exits the curb, two other drivers pull immediately into the recently vacated spots. Seconds later, the be-frothed man returns to find that he has been left out to dry. The entire sequence is shot from a position in front of the action without editing. It is a simple, clean progression of movement and timing. For the remainder of the film, we are occasionally reminded of the man's plight as he continues to search in vain for a spot.
In another scene, Etaix once again finds his car pinned. This time, a delivery truck has parked so close on the driver's side, that it is impossible to reach the door. Likewise, a compact car prevents him from entering the passenger side. Finding the door of the obstructing car unlocked, Etaix climbs in and begins to back the car out of the space, so he may reach is own. However, he is soon caught by the owners of the vehicle. In response, he merely raises his hat politely towards them. This action is reminiscent of a scene in Buster Keaton's Battling Butler (1926). Finding himself submerged neck-deep in water, Buster raises his hat to a passing lady in a row boat. In both cases, the gesture is rendered absurd because of its inappropriateness to the situation. Shot in an economic fashion, we only see the back view of either comedian, which allows the audience to witness the baffled responses of the other characters.
This short film won Etaix an Oscar in 1962. It is a wonderful introduction to a comedian that is seldom seen on this side of the Atlantic. If the opportunity comes your way to see this film, I highly recommend that you give it shot.