Saturday, 13 November 2010

Pierre Etaix: The Great Love

'It started badly…' - Pierre

I've just seen the film of the year: it was made in 1968. This evening, Terry Gilliam introduced The Great Love (Le grand amour) at London's wonderful Ciné Lumière with director Pierre Etaix in attendance. The film is a whimsical take on provincial mores and marriage; it's as if Ozu's Late Autumn (1960) were invaded by the spirit of Les demoiselles de Rochefort (1967), this time not under the hand of Jacques Demy but invested with the anarchical comic outlook of Laurel and Hardy.

Etaix considered filming The Great Love all over France to create a composite city but, much to his producer's relief, settled on Tours, in the middle of the country. The film's centres are its main characters' home, the office, a city park, the railway station and a nearby café, filled with its habitués - the setting of so many bleak Simenon novels invaded by transcendent Technicolor.

Etaix's clown sensibility is captured in a wonderful scene where he, in the lead role, tries to remember whether he met his wife-to-be - played by real-life first wife Annie Fratellini (of a famous circus family) - on the terrace or inside that bar. One central set-piece is a surrealistic dream: Godard's Week End (1967) played out in motorised beds.

The sequence begins with Etaix's character, married Pierre, dreaming of his beautiful new secretary, Agnes. His bed wheels itself out of the marital bedroom and into the wider world (pictured), reminiscent of those beautiful closing scenes in two films separated by generations and temperaments: Fellini's I Vitelloni (1953) and Roy Andersson's You, the Living (2007). They're some of my most-loved sequences in all cinema, to which I can add a new favourite.

Asked for his advice to would-be directors, Etaix's answer could be translated as make what you love, or do what you love. A whole new audience is set to fall in love with his recently restored work; certainly every director should now be expected to perform sleight-of-hand tricks during Q&As, as the soon-to-be 82 year old did.

His debut feature, Le soupirant (1963), screens at the Ciné Lumière tomorrow and, on this showing, I can't recommend it enough. I shall return to Pierre Etaix.

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