Obituary: Pierre Etaix
French film director, actor, painter and writer who loved to star in the circus
Published 23/10/2016 | 02:30
Pierre Etaix, who has died aged 87, was a French clown, actor, painter, writer, film director and master of physical comedy. The comedian Jerry Lewis said he had encountered the word "genius" only twice in his lifetime; once when he looked up the definition of the word in the dictionary, and the second time when he met Pierre Etaix.
The admiration was mutual; Etaix wrote a book-length homage to Lewis in the form of a long poem, illustrated by dozens of caricatures. He also appeared in The Day the Clown Cried (1972), a film which Lewis directed, starred in and ultimately financed. It later became the subject of acrimonious litigation and remains unreleased.
As a film-maker in his own right Etaix was also inspired by Jacques Tati, and he worked as a gag writer, assistant director, designer, runner and uncredited extra on Tati's comic masterpiece Mon Oncle (1958). But Etaix - who, like Tati, was meticulous when it came to writing and directing - made only five films.
The best known of these were Le Soupirant (The Suitor, 1963), the tale of a shy young man who has to get married in a hurry, and Yoyo (1965), a romantic comedy about the son of a billionaire who loses all his money and becomes a circus clown.
His cinematic output was not only limited by his precise working methods. For decades Etaix was involved in complicated legal rows with distribution companies, as a result of which his films were not screened or transferred to DVD. This was only remedied in 2010 after 50,000 people - including Woody Allen, David Lynch and Jean-Luc Godard - signed a petition demanding that artists no longer be deprived of their rights. As a result, a number of his films reappeared - both in cinemas and on DVD - and, much to Etaix's pleasure, interest in his work was revived.
Pierre Etaix was born on November 23, 1928 in Roanne, central France. As a child he was enthralled by the circus and in his teens he learned acrobatics, juggling, roller skating and how to play the xylophone. He also studied the violin, as well as costume and wig-making. In 1948, during his military service at Vincennes, Etaix spent almost every night visiting the Parisian circuses of Medrano in Montmartre and Cirque d'Hiver near the Place de la Republique.
Etaix was also an avid fan of the great screen clowns - Laurel and Hardy, Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton and the Marx Brothers - and they greatly influenced his later film career.
In his early years, however, he was a painter and designer. In the early 1950s, inspired by seeing Jacques Tati's Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot (Mr Hulot's Holiday, 1953) Etaix moved to Paris, taking his art work with him to show Tati. The result was Etaix's writing and production work on Mon Oncle, for which he also designed the poster.
He later made his debut as a clown, working for a year under the name of Leo, before spending the next three years in music hall. During this period he was also collaborating with the novelist Jean-Claude Carriere.
Etaix made two short films with Carriere, Rupture and Heureux Anniversaire (both released in 1961, the second of which won an Oscar for best short film), which were followed by Le Soupirant.
They also collaborated on Yoyo, winner of the OCIC Award at Cannes in 1965, and Tant qu'on a la sante (As long as you've got your health, 1966). Their Le Grand Amour (1969) starred Etaix and Annie Fratellini - the granddaughter of Paul Fratellini, one of the original Trio Fratellini, the most famous clowns of their era - whom Etaix married that same year.
In 1971, the couple took their touching and gentle circus act on tour. They also founded the National Circus School in France.
Etaix continued to perform in the circus ring in later life, often reviving the character of Yoyo. In 1971 Etaix made the documentary Pays de Cocagne (Land of Milk and Honey), a rather cutting look at the French on holiday. It was not popular with the public or the critics and after its failure he did not direct again.
His acting credits include Tire-au-flanc 62 (1962), Le Voleur (directed by Louis Malle, 1966), Federico Fellini's Les Clowns (1970), Belle Ordure (1973) and Henry et June (1990).
Annie Fratellini died in 1997. Etaix is survived by their son, and by his second wife, Odile (nee Crepin), a former jazz singer.
He died on October 14.