Saturday, April 20, 2013

DVR Diary: THE SUITOR (Le Soupirant, 1962)

For film buffs, Pierre Etaix has the glamour of a buried treasure. A protege of Jacques Tati, Etaix made four comedy features in the 1960s and won an Academy Award for one of his short subjects. He then gave up movies, with brief exceptions up to the present day, and the few films he'd made were tied up in legal tangles until 2010. Last year his canon was re-premiered in New York, and the Criterion Collection releases them on DVD and Blu-Ray next week. Turner Classic Movies got the jump on Criterion and gave the Etaix films their American television premieres on Tuesday, April 16. Along with the glamour of buried treasure there was the promise of a lost slapstick master in the classic tradition, so naturally I DVR'ed those suckers and took my first look this weekend.

Le Soupirant is a very traditional slapstick picture compared to Tati's anti-modernist satires. Etaix is the title character, a sheltered, unworldly young man with an interest in science whose parents urge him to go out and find himself a woman. He dutifully prepares himself, practicing his romantic moves with various pieces of furniture and plants while ignoring the comely but humble foreign lass who lives with the family as an au pair. But he's a classic bumbler and blunderer, and while his mishaps and mistakes are often well-staged, there's really little that seems innovative or special about them. If Etaix has any artistic signature, based on this first feature and the two early shorts I've seen, it's an occasional reliance on loud, annoying sound effects to underscore Pierre's awkwardness. He isn't consistent about this, for which you'll be grateful after a few minutes of it.

The film doesn't hit its stride until Pierre picks up more than he can handle in an aggressive, alcoholic female whom he has to take home in a state of collapse. In pure physical comedy terms Etaix can't improve on the ways Harry Langdon and Buster Keaton handled similar situations in The Strong Man and Spite Marriage, respectively, but he gets some mileage out of Pierre's repeated embarrassment at encountering people while trying to transport the unconscious woman to her apartment. Later, on an outing in the country, he spends most of his time trying to hide from her. Back at her place, however, he falls in love with Stella, a TV singer, instantly abandoning his undressing host. Now the movie strikes a modern note as Pierre becomes an obsessed fan, buying up every poster or postcard and every copy of a newspaper with her face on it, and bringing home stand-up displays from the theaters where she performs. His determination to meet Stella inspires him to infiltrate the backstage of some variety show she's headlining. None of his business in this sequence is really as memorable as the somewhat distasteful payoff of the Stella storyline. Skip the next paragraph to avoid a spoiler

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Pierre finally makes it to Stella's dressing room and has one more attendant to get through before entering the presence. This final obstacle proves cooperative, but as soon as this full-grown young man addresses Stella as "Mom," she loses all allure for our hero. Strangely, she gets up to greet him but Etaix doesn't give us a good look at her face, which we've seen in close-up when Pierre saw her on TV. It's as if Etaix wanted either to show her age but couldn't give the actress a proper make-up job, or to show that Pierre doesn't want to look at her now that he knows her age. It's an odd climax that doesn't necessarily reflect well on the auteur or his character.
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Soupirant is pleasant but really no more than that, but it's Etaix's first try at a feature film. I'm hoping the other three will live up to the hype. A circus clown before and after his film work, Etaix here shows obvious potential as a physical film comic, both as a performer and a director. The restored cinematography, including extensive Paris location work, looks nice, while the music by Jean Paillaud is Sixties lush, somewhere between Chaplin and Riz Ortolani. So far Etaix is not quite a hidden master but I'm still willing to give the other films a try as long as I'm not paying for the DVDs. Stay tuned for more this week.

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