While most of Pierre Etaix's films had to wait until 2010 to escape from litigation entanglements, his second feature got a sneak showing at the 2007 Cannes film festival. The lawyers promptly pounced, but you can't help wondering, now that we all can see Yoyo, whether it had been let loose long enough to influence the making of The Artist. The two film's aren't too similar -- Yoyo is only silent for its first act, set in the silent era, and its main subject is the steady rise of a clown rather than the fall and rise of a romantic leading man. But seeing any neo-silent black and white film from France will probably remind you of The Artist, favorably or not. Both films are movie-history pieces, but Yoyo is more expansive, attempting a comic history of pop culture over 40 years, from 1925 to the film's present day. And as the title shows, it isn't entirely uninterested in rise and fall dynamics, but the rise and fall of a yo-yo isn't quite as melodramatic as the hero's ordeal in The Artist, and neither is Etaix's film.
Etaix takes on a double role -- not counting other little bits like a brief turn as Hitler -- as a father and son. The father is an immensely wealthy twit of the sort that Buster Keaton sometimes played, though the mustachioed, top-hatted Etaix is presumably more evocative of France's own Max Linder. Etaix the director has great fun filming at the character's massive chateau, and you sometimes expect the film to turn into a comedy version of Last Year at Marienbad. He has an eye for epic pettiness as the wealthy man takes his little dog for a walk. He rides in a limousine as it circles the courtyard, the poor animal trotting behind on a leash. He wallows indifferently in decadence as a dozen women dance the Charleston for him and wait on him hand and foot. But he's a romantic at heart. I can already identify an archetypal Etaix image of the hero seated at a writing table, mooning over a picture of his beloved. We get that here as we did when Etaix was infatuated with the singer in The Suitor, and in his short subject Rupture, which is all about the hero's disastrous attempts to write a love letter. We also get another Etaix signature in the early part of the picture: the cartoonish sound effects of squeaky shoes and squeaky doors also heard in Suitor. This gimmickry is doubly annoying because, first, it's just annoying, but also because he seems invariably to just give it up after a while. You begin to suspect that Etaix has a hard time holding a thought over an entire feature, but Yoyo proves more structurally sound than that.
The girl in the picture is an equestrienne, the star of a circus summoned to the chateau for a command performance for an audience of one. While our hero watches the show, a child clown wanders through the building. The equestrienne eventually tells our hero that this is his son, named Yoyo after the man's favorite toy. With the Depression descending over France -- we see Etaix stepping carefully down a street as stockbrokers prepare to jump from the windows above -- our hero decides to run away and join the circus. The little family becomes its own one-truck circus touring Europe. It's a pretty competitive environment -- they have to skip one town because Zampano and Gelsomina from La Strada have already been booked there -- to perform at 8 1/2 o'clock! But little Yoyo thrives in these circumstances and rises to become a star clown in a big-time circus as an adult, after a stint as a prisoner of war. Indeed, he has become Pierre Etaix, and the film becomes his story from here.
The film's yo-yo structure asserts itself as the young clown becomes freshly interested in his birthright, the chateau. He funnels all his earnings into rehabbing the place, which his father had left to decay. His rise threatens to be thwarted by the rise of television, but this is just one of Etaix's tricks playing on false expectations on first impressions. He shows a pompous figure on a tiny TV screen bloviating on how TV will transform entertainment forever. We then see a shabby Yoyo reduced to playing his violin in the street, hoping to entertain a diner into giving him money. Forget about it; that guy's a musician himself and too strict a judge of music to reward our humbled hero. But then a director calls cut and it turns out that Yoyo is filming a TV special, another triumph. At last he's ready to show off the restored chateau to high society, but at that moment he's visited by his on-off girlfriend, an acrobat, and by his parents in their old circus wagon. Etaix has given us some dazzling images in this picture, but he refuses to give us a double-exposure; the father is represented by the camera shaking its head no when Yoyo invites him to return to his old home. Indeed, at the very moment when Yoyo is poised to become his father, socially speaking, he hears the call of the circus once more....
Cinematographer Jean Boffety joins co-writer Jean-Claude Carriere on the Etaix team with this picture and helps make Yoyo a ravishingly monochrome movie. If the film has any major weakness it's that the bookend chateau scenes are so spectacular that the middle section becomes relatively forgettable. It seems more clear as we go along that Etaix lacks the satiric clarity of his mentor Jacques Tati, but makes a worthy rival in pictorial imagination. Yoyo is a charmingly good-natured film that might not be ranked among the great comedies but is certainly worth seeing just for the visual experience. Here Etaix starts to live up to the retroactive hype.