Pierre Étaix, a French clown and filmmaker whose stylish acrobatics and melancholy manner made him an Academy Award-winning master of slapstick comedy, died Friday in Paris. He was 87.
The cause was complications of an intestinal infection, his wife, Odile Étaix, told the Agence France-Presse.
Although Étaix directed and starred in only five feature films and several shorts — including “Heureux Anniversaire” (“Happy Anniversary”), which won the Oscar for best live-action short in 1963 — he was considered one of the most brilliant physical comedians of the past half-century.
“With and without dialogue, he charted simple stories and routines with a practical elegance rarely seen since the silent era,” the film critic Nicolas Rapold wrote in 2012 in The New York Times.
A trained clown who performed in circuses and cabarets, Étaix was supporting himself as an illustrator when he met filmmaker Jacques Tati in 1954. The actor-director was so impressed with Étaix’s drawings that he offered him an apprenticeship on the set of his 1958 comedy “Mon Oncle,” for which Étaix drew storyboards, developed gags and designed the film’s distinctive, brightly colored poster.
He made his directing debut with the 10-minute short “Rupture” (1961), a nearly wordless comedy about a jilted lover — played by Étaix — who attempts to respond to his girlfriend’s perfumed breakup letter. The film and its follow-up, “Happy Anniversary,” about a husband’s increasingly frantic preparations for a dinner with his wife, were co-directed by novelist Jean-Claude Carrière, whom Étaix met through Tati.
Carrière later became a favorite collaborator of director Luis Buñuel and co-wrote Étaix’s first features: “Le Soupirant” (“The Suitor,” 1963), “Yoyo” (1965), “Tant qu’on a la Santé” (“As Long as You’ve Got Your Health,” 1966) and “Le Grand Amour” (1969).
“Le Grand Amour,” about a married factory owner who pines for his new secretary, featured one of Étaix’s most memorable gags: a dream scene in which country roads are filled not with cars but with floating beds, with each bed-driver comfortably dressed in nightclothes.
Étaix’s film career collapsed after the release of “Pays de Cocagne” (“Land of Milk and Honey,” 1971), a satirical documentary about French consumerism following that country’s May 1968 demonstrations. After the film was scorned by critics and audiences, Étaix found it difficult to obtain new producers for his work and returned to the stage.