Pierre Étaix, the French clown, actor, and film director who won an Oscar for his 1962 short film Happy Anniversary and counted some of the world’s greatest filmmakers among his loyal fans, has died. Le Monde reports that the cause of death was an intestinal infection. Étaix was 87.
Born in 1928 in Roanne, Étaix initially studied to be a graphic designer, a background that he would often draw on for his act and subsequent film work. Influenced by the silent comedy of the stone-faced Buster Keaton and the dapper Max Linder, he established himself in the music halls of Paris in the early 1950s.
There, he caught the attention of actor-director Jacques Tati, who hired Étaix to come help him write gags for Mon Oncle (1958), his celebrated second outing as the clumsy, pipe-smoking Monsieur Hulot. Étaix was closely involved in the years-long process of developing the film, ultimately serving as Tati’s assistant director on the shoot. He also designed the poster.
Afterward, Étaix embarked on a directing career of his own, initially in collaboration with a then-unknown Jean-Claude Carrière; the celebrated French screenwriter got his first credit on Étaix’s debut short, Rupture (1961). (Carrière’s body of work is at this point too vast but to be summarized with a few choice titles, but we’d be remiss not to mention that he wrote Luis Buñuel’s famed late period films, including Belle De Jour and The Discrete Charm Of The Bourgeoisie.)
After the widely acclaimed Happy Anniversary (also co-written and co-directed with Carrière), he went on to string of features: The Suitor (1963), Yoyo (1965), As Long As You’ve Got Your Health (1966), Le Grand Amour (1969), and lastly the quasi-documentary Land Of Milk And Honey (1971), whose poor reception effectively ended Étaix’s directing career. Though slapstick in its nature, his style avoided exaggerated movements, preferring a more delicate and understated sensibility that drew on his gifts as a sleight-of-hand artist.
As a result of legal disputes, Étaix’s classic films remained almost completely unavailable for decades. They were eventually restored and re-released in 2010, and are now available in a boxed set from Criterion. Long a filmmaker’s favorite, he made his acting debut as one of the thieves in Robert Bresson’s classic Pickpocket (1959), and went on to appear in films by Nagisa Ôshima (Max Mon Amour), Aki Kaurismäki (Le Havre), Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Micmacs), and Jerry Lewis (the unreleased The Day The Clown Cried). His final role was in Otar Iosselliani’s Winter Song in 2015.
From the early 1970s, Étaix focused most of his energies on the circus, though he returned to directing briefly in the ’80s. He was married to the clown and circus artist Annie Fratellini until her death in 1997. Étaix’s death was announced by his second wife, Odile Étaix.