On the night I saw my first film by French director Pierre Etaix, I also met him - at a screening in London's estimable Ciné Lumiere. Etaix was guest of honour and - 10 days short of his 82nd birthday - stepped onto the stage with a bounce; afterwards he happily signed autographs, adding a trademark clown doodle, and retained a sparkle in his eyes despite what must have been a tiring evening. Part of his joy, he said, was to meet Terry Gilliam, who introduced Etaix's The Great Love (Le grand amour, 1969) that night.
A cabaret performer and clown, Etaix served as assistant director to Jacques Tati on Mon oncle (1958), also creating the iconic illustration for the film's poster. Following this apprenticeship of sorts, Etaix went on to direct and star in a series of his own features. While Tati's work is imbued with a sadness at the passing of the past (highlighted nowhere better than in Sylvain Chomet's beautiful The Illusionist, 2010, from a script by Tati), Etaix is more ambivalent, recognising the values of tradition while embracing the new. (In 1989 Etaix worked on a film in a groundbreaking new 3D format, Omnimax, which has no screen but places the audience at the centre of the action.)
His humour has probably dated better than some of Tati's films, too, though that may be because Etaix's films have been hidden from public view for a generation due to what is consistently referred to as a 'legal imbroglio'. There is nothing forced about his work; while Tati can sometimes seem a tad ponderous, The Great Love is at once snappy and measured. Etaix was a contemporary of the Nouvelle Vague and says he was approached by Truffaut to help with a dance scene in Jules et Jim (1962) but the collaboration didn't happen: 'They [the Nouvelle Vague] didn't need me.'
Because I saw Etaix giving a brief introduction before viewing The Great Love, I hadn't been prepared to see him as a young man in the film's main role. Incredible, I thought, how Etaix managed to find a lead actor who looks exactly as he would have done then. It was as if I were seeing the premiere of a new work the 81-year-old director had travelled back 42 years in time to make.