Friday, July 19, 2013

Le grand amour: The Erotic Imagination of Pierre Étaix

Staged, in often voiced-over vaudevillian silence, as a series of recollections, desires and contingent realities that collectively map the mental geography of actor-director Pierre Étaix's middle-aged lead, Le grand amour (1969) is indeed a cinema of the male mind, overcome by the obsessive passions that the first sight of Nicole Calfan's eighteen year-old Agnès inspire. Perfectly cast for the spaces that give her grin its wink-like, corrupted adolescent appearance and for the slim shape of her calves as they extend between her sculpted knees and the straps of her black Mary-Jane's, Calfan provides the spectacular sensual presence around which Étaix constructs his digressive imaginings of an adulterous alternative.

In the first of these passages, with Étaix's Pierre drifting into a dream-filled sleep, Le grand amour presents its married male lead rolling over a tree-lined country road on his identical twin bed. As an ethereal vocal combines with the scene's organ score, Pierre passes silently among his fellow mattress-motorists, ultimately reaching his objet du désir as she waits roadside, her short pink negligee fluttering in the gentle breeze. Deliberately, she softly slides her bare legs into Pierre's mobile bed; her much older companion tucks her in and pulls her close as the silently shot, five minute-plus passage continues first on the congested rural thoroughfares, and then in an idyllic wooded park. After the couple finds momentary pause in a private glen, they motor back magically to Pierre and Florence's (Annie Fratellini) master bedroom, thus bringing to its conclusion the most classically surreal moment of screenwriters Étaix and Jean-Claude Carrière's fourth feature-length collaboration.

Elsewhere it is the daydream, the waking fantasy and speculative reflection that provides Le grand amour with its many ruptures from mundane reality. Even prior to Agnès's second-act appearance, Étaix fills his film with sight gags that originate on some level in his character's mind, be it in the kneeling arc of ex-lover brides that take Florence's place or in his spatial alternations between the café's interior and terrace as Pierre struggles to remember where he first spotted his betrothed. (The latter provides occasion for one of a set of comic breaks from the ontological space of Pierre's mind, as a frustrated waiter demands that the lead decide whether he wants to be inside or out.)

Of course, it is not only Pierre's mental activity that finds expression, but that of his circle, including best-friend Jacques (Alain Janey), who speculates on ways to end the factory executive's marriage to Florence - though not without Pierre correcting Jacques's more improbable suggestions (as described by the on-screen, contingent comedic scenarios). It is indeed in Le grand amour's comedy of imagination that Étaix and Carrière bridge the gap between their two most prominent former collaborators: Jacques Tati for Mon Oncle assistant director Étaix - Le grand amour's opening church set-piece offers an especially Tatiesque, gag-heavy comedic aural-scape, with sound effects employed for the purposes of distraction - and Luis Buñuel for the Belle de jour screenwriter.

Le grand amour in fact anticipates another of Carrière and Buñuel's imminent pairings, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972), in both its digressive subjective structure and also its upper middle-class milieu. The latter provides amble opportunity for parody, as, for example, in one of the film's most original and ingenious set-pieces: the early gossip scene. Here an inconsequential, chance crossing of paths between Pierre and an unidentified female pedestrian escalates in each malicious retelling - as visualized in the passage's progression of pantomimed meetings - until an overweight middle-aged woman, with pastry spread slovenly across her chattering mouth, tells of the couple's clandestine lovemaking behind a bit of park shrubbery. Generally more benign elsewhere, Étaix's bourgeoisie are the authors of the banality that Pierre endeavors to escape with the exquisite Agnès.

Not that Pierre doesn't immediately appear happy (or is in any genuine sense unsatisfied) with the wife and job he never wanted. (Florence and the factory, it should be noted, come together in a large, red-framed portrait that absolutely dominates the mise-en-scène of Pierre's office.) Rather, Agnès offers a pure object of erotic desire, who as it happens threatens his respectable middle-class existence. Le grand amour, however, will prove far less morally anarchic than Carrière's collaborations with Buñuel: Pierre indeed realizes that he and Agnès are incompatibile after she repeats one of his earlier deflections during their one arranged rendezvous. Dropping her off in his newly purchased cherry-red sports car, Pierre confesses that he no longer loves her, bringing their just embarked upon courtship to an abrupt close. In the concluding passage that follows, Pierre joyously reunites with his vacationing wife, Fratellini's attractive in her own right and far more age appropriate Florence, in a comparatively conservative affirmation of the sacramental institution.

Off-screen, it bears mentioning, as a closing point of trivia, that Étaix and Fratellini would marry the same year that Le grand amour was released (1969), beginning a union that would continue until the actress's death in 1997. Fratellini, as such, would not survive to see Étaix's belated re-discovery in 2010, when Le grand amour received its first public screening in forty years at the Cannes International film festival. For this writer, Étaix has been 2013's biggest revelation - welcome evidence that Tati was not alone in his great comedic art in the 1960s, but that he instead inspired another major director of that same period - thanks to a spring program of the filmmaker's work at the Denver Film Society and the Criterion Collection's release of the Pierre Étaix box set in April. Along with the signature Yoyo (1965), the film that the massively over-praised, Academy award-winning The Artist (2011) should have been, Le grand amour might just be the director's greatest achievement.

Let me offer a special thanks to Lisa K. Broad for her insights included in this essay.


Christoper said...


Eternality Tan said...

Excellent article. Enjoyed it.