YOYO (Pierre Étaix, 1965) / HEREUX ANNIVERSAIRE (Pierre Étaix & Jean-Claude Carrière, 1962)
MoMA Film, Museum of Modern Art
11 West 53rd St. between Fifth & Sixth Aves.
Thursday, May 9, 4:30, and Wednesday, May 15, 7:00
Series runs May 9 - June 16
French auteur Pierre Étaix’s strange and beautiful films were long inaccessible, the subject of nearly two decades of legal wrangling, but on May 9 and 15, MoMA will be presenting his 1965 bittersweet black-and-white slapstick charmer, Yoyo, as part of its “Jean-Claude Carrière” series, celebrating the screenwriter and master collaborator who worked with such legends as Luis Buñuel, Louis Malle, Miloš Forman, Jean-Luc Godard, Andrzej Wajda, Nagisa Oshima, and Peter Brook; the eighty-seven-year-old Carrière will introduce the May 9 screening. (In April 2010, Étaix was finally able to once again bring his films to the public, his entire output restored and making their New York debut at a festival at Film Forum in October 2012.) Étaix, who wrote Yoyo with Carrière, stars as a ridiculously wealthy but extremely bored man who lives alone in an ornately decorated, absurdly large chateau. It’s 1925, and he has servants for absolutely everything, as well as his own private band and flappers, but he pines for his lost love, Isolina (Claudine Auger). One day she arrives with a traveling circus, along with a young boy (Philippe Dionnet) who turns out to be his son. She at first rejects the multimillionaire, but when he loses it all on Black Tuesday, the three of them form their own traveling circus, with the boy ultimately turning into a popular clown named Yoyo (played as an adult by Étaix) and seeking to restore the chateau and his family.
The first section of the film is a glorious homage to the silent film era and other cinematic comedians, with Étaix evoking his mentor, Jacques Tati; Charlie Chaplin; Buster Keaton; and, later, Jerry Lewis, with whom he’d appear as Gustav the Great in Lewis’s never-to-be-seen Holocaust film The Day the Clown Died. Nouvelle Vague cinematographer Jean Boffety (An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge; Je t’aime, je t’aime) shoots Yoyo in a sharp, gorgeous black-and-white, composing breathtaking shots that boast a dazzling symmetry that must make Wes Anderson giddy with delight, while Étaix fills the film with ingenious sight gags that would make Ernie Kovacs proud (just wait till you see the supposed still-life painting), all anchored by Jean Paillaud’s memorable musical theme. But once the stock market crashes and talkies take over, dialogue enters the picture, and the camera is often off balance, the perfect symmetry a thing of the past. With Yoyo, Étaix, who had previously made Le Soupirant and would go on to make The Great Love and En pleine forme, was influenced by the sudden, tragic death of his father, his love of the circus — he had already worked under the big tent, and he would leave films to become a clown in a traveling circus in the early 1970s — and his viewing of Fellini’s 8½ (look for the La Strada poster) resulting in a film that sometimes gets a little lost and too surreal, but he ultimately brings things back around as Yoyo grows into a star and the story travels through the arc of twentieth-century entertainment, from the silent era to talkies to television. Truffaut called it “a beautiful film in which I loved every shot and every idea, and which taught me many things about movies.”
It’s a real treat that Étaix’s work is undergoing this rediscovery; lovers of Michel Hazanavicius’s The Artist will particularly enjoy Yoyo, which is being shown with Heureux Anniversaire, Étaix and Carrière’s deliriously funny black-and-white short that won the 1963 Oscar for Best Live Action Short Subject. As a woman (Laurence Lignières) prepares a special anniversary dinner at home, her husband (Étaix) gets trapped in all kinds of craziness as he desperately tries to make it home in time, but the traffic and parking gods are against him. Hysterical slapstick ensues virtually without dialogue, like a classic silent film with a wacky score. And you’ll never be able to look at Mr. Bean the same way again. “Jean-Claude Carrière” runs May 9 to June 16 and includes such other works Carrière wrote and/or directed as Philip Kaufman’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Godard’s Every Man for Himself, Buñuel’s The Phantom of Liberty, and Wajda’s Danton, with Carrière introducing several screenings.