Pierre Étaix is a carnie. Literally: except for time spent directing five feature films in the 1960s, he's made his living in the circus. But in that decade, riffing on the conventions of silent comedy with battle-tested command of the craft, he rushed off an oeuvre as distinctive as any other in the French New Wave.
But Chaplin, Keaton, Tati . . . Étaix? It may seem hyperbolic to put him in that company, but his work, revived for the first time in four decades and presented in this MFA retrospective, places him in a direct lineage with the masters. He takes the form — the elaborate pratfalls, the hapless male protagonist (which he plays himself), the archaic elegance — and puts an era-appropriate, absurdist stamp on it. Hell, he eviscerates the bourgeoisie with a scorn that would make Godard and Buñuel proud.
And never better than in Yoyo (1965; January 13 @ 3 pm + January 16 @ 5:45 pm), where he tracks two generations of a wealthy family of entertainers through half a century. In its most daring conceit, the film starts silent, gains dialogue as the age of talkies (and the Depression) approaches, and then adopts a faster pace — and a greater sense of societal dissatisfaction — as television dominates the culture in act three. In this way he uses past aesthetics for both surface pleasures and biting subtext. It's history as contextualized by comedy — a fitting magnum opus for a clown.
THE FILMS OF PIERRE ÉTAIX :: Museum of Fine Arts :: January 11-18
, Harvard Film Archive, retrospective