There’s a tendency on the part of us film geeks to think that we have discovered all the masters, unearthed all there is to find among the 20th century’s national cinemas (particularly when it comes to the French), and that the Seventh Art’s historical cartography is, at this point, a closed book. So it’s always a pleasure when our arrogance gets punctured and someone who’s regrettably slipped through the cracks is pushed back into view—a service that Film Forum is graciously providing for Gallic actor and filmmaker Pierre Étaix. A performer and illustrator—he drew the elongated, storklike caricature of Monsieur Hulot that served as Jacques Tati’s graphic calling card—Étaix would go on to serve as a collaborator and assistant director for Tati’s 1958 farce, Mon Uncle.
You can certainly see the influence of Hulot’s creator in the three shorts and five features that Film Forum is showing during its 12-day tribute, though you’ll spot the DNA of everybody from Tati to Tashlin and Tex Avery in Étaix’s 1969 feature, about a bored businessman smitten with a young, nubile secretary (Nicole Calfan). The plot is the kind of malaise-of-the-middle-aged–married-man hokum that would make Tom Ewell cringe. But the surreal comic tangents that Étaix and longtime cowriter Jean-Claude Carrière deliver are pure sow’s-ear silk, from a literalization of splitting joint possessions down the middle to an extended beds-as-cars sequence that predicts Michel Gondry’s whimsical-absurdist aesthetic. It may be a stretch to call the filmmaker a forgotten genius, but if nothing else, Le Grand Amour makes a case that Étaix was a fertile clown, overdue for a bow in the spotlight.
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