The more lasting achievements of French director and star Pierre Etaix arrive this month, as part of the Siskel Film Center's Nov. 4-21 retrospective titled "Pierre Etaix: The Lost Laugh." But the 1969 Etaix film "Le Grand Amour," playing this week along with the Oscar-winning short film "Happy Anniversary" (1962), provides a taste, at least, of this largely unknown talent's particular comic stylings. Stay tuned for "Yoyo," a clear inspiration for "The Artist" in its love for silent-film pastiche, one of the Etaix features included in this series of restored features and shorts.
Like Jacques Tati, for whom he made significant contributions on Tati's "Mon Oncle," the eagle-beaked Etaix knew how to use his angularity for poetic effect. In "Le Grand Amour," his third feature, he plays a restless bourgeois businessman whose wife vacations at a convenient time for his plans involving his young secretary. The discreetly lustful daydream sequences suggest a variation on "The Seven-Year Itch" or "A Guide for the Married Frenchman," and a lot of the film evokes its era in not-so-fresh ways (plus, the cinematography in the interior sequences is as drab and harsh as any Joseph E. Levine melodrama of the period).
"Le Grand Amour" remains a divisive picture. Time Out London's film guide referred to its "tiresome whimsy," noting that the film came out at a strange time "in which to satirize French bourgeois morality with a gentle affection that turns to approbation." But now and then, gems are there for the taking. In their separate beds, Etaix listens to his wife discuss her plans to leave soon by train — and then, magically, her bed becomes a rail car, rolling across the floor just before a jump cut to a real train chugging out of town. The image is strange and funny and a little bit sad all at once, in tune with this doleful farce's view of middle-class marriage.
Plays at 3 p.m. Sunday and 6 p.m. Wednesday at the Siskel Film Center. In French with English subtitles. For information on the full Etaix retrospective, go to siskelfilmcenter.org or call firstname.lastname@example.org