Yoyo is a marvel of a film. One of those that feels nearly perfect as you watch it and stays with you for long after. With nods to Fellini, Chaplin, the Marx Brothers, and Tati, Pierre Etaix’s second feature-film as director is an ode to movies and to family. Its closest cousins are likely the films of fellow countryman Jacques Tati. While Yoyo predates Tati’s masterpiece (and one of my all-time favorite films) Playtime by two years, the style of gags is reminiscent of those from Mon Oncle or Mr. Hulot’s Holiday.
It might also be easy to say that recent films Blancanieves or even The Artist were inspired from its structure: starting as a silent film (indeed, though it moves into the “talkie” era, it’s really at heart a work of silent cinema), and gradually building into a homage to the movies. But Yoyo is still in a class of its own.
Director Etaix plays the title character as well as Yoyo’s father. The narrative begins in a his father’s mansion – a man who seems to have everything, yet pines for one woman. When the circus appears so does she, along with her son, the clown Yoyo. The father leaves his fortune behind and follows them. Eventually, Yoyo begins to follow in his father’s footsteps.
One thing that I really like about Yoyo – and in this it’s quite similar to early silent comedy – is how Etaix isn’t afraid to take a break from the narrative for long, extended jokes. One of the best comes at the end of the film. At a large party we follow a man’s attempt to get his hands on a pearl that’s been rolling around the floor. He’s a minor character, and we entirely leave Yoyo for a full five minutes just to watch this plight.
The gags (and gags themselves are a major plot point in the film) in Yoyo really vary. Here, a slovenly butler is suddenly transformed via a cut as he crosses a threshold:
Another butler makes sure that no one is watching-
-and then goes to his secret liquor stash, expertly hidden:
The father (credited as “the millionaire”) puts on his glasses, only to have one of his servants read to him:
And his getting ready to go out is an assembly line not unlike that in Modern Times, where he actually does very little of the putting on:
It’s gags like this one that really remind me of Tati. On the road, the millionaire leaves a pack of cigarettes on a stand next to the road so that his wife in the trailer behind can get them:
And when she wants to return them to the front of the car, she places them in the back of a hat of a passing bicyclist so that Yoyo can grab them from the front seat:
But Yoyo isn’t all just gags. There’s some real cinematic brilliance in here. My favorite part is a genius transition. As Yoyo retreats to his circus tent – a clown now grown up – a band of horses and trainers passes in front, suddenly moving into slow-motion, and then coming to a freeze-frame:
This leads into a really clever montage about the impending war, including this moment that looks like a Monty Python precursor-
-and this one that could be from Monty Python or even another Gilliam work, Brazil:
When the war ends, how does Etaix get back to Yoyo’s career in the circus? He cuts back to those same horses, of course, bringing them out of the freeze frame and gradually back up to regular motion (time stands still while the country’s at war).
Etaix includes takedowns of TV, like this shot that emphasizes its meager size in comparison to a full cinema screen, complete with a news anchor never knowing what camera to look towards and plenty of awkward pauses:
He has the only use, that I can recall, of a voiceover in the form of a letter, where the voiceover is actually interrupted by things happening in real time. As Yoyo reads the letter from his mother, and as we hear her voice, she “stops reading,” everytime he gets distracted. It’s a small detail but a really clever one:
Lastly, Yoyo features the most seductive shoe removal of all-time, shot mostly in this close-up, as a handful of flappers watch the bored millionaire:
A few other recent films:
The East (Batmanglij, 2013)
Zal Batmanglij’s follow-up to Sound of my Voice is fun, but takes itself too seriously. Some of it is just straight-up silly. Anarchists in strait jackets teaching silent lessons on teamwork?
A Hijacking (Lindholm, 2012)
A pretty good, tense flick about a Somali pirate takeover, the film really suffers from its reliance on the crosscut between the ship and the boardroom where the ship’s owner attempts to negotiate with the pirates. It’s not just that the ship is more interesting, it’s also that much hinges on the fact that Peter (Soren Malling) is supposed to be a master negotiator – but the scene that sets that up, a talk with a Japanese firm, is not at all believable.
There’s also some unintentionally hilarious set design in that boardroom, particularly a dry erase board that seems only to function to write down the ransom offers with a bunch of arrows pointing to one another in a weak flow chart.
Shadow Dancer (Marsh, 2013)
A solid thriller from the director of Man on Wire with great performances. Full review HERE.
Mud (Nichols, 2013)
Jeff Nichols’ third feature film is my least favorite, but still really good. It also features another strong performance from Matthew McConaughy, who is in the midst of a great run. Full review HERE.
Trance (Boyle, 2013)
A good return to thriller form from Danny Boyle that, if nothing else, is flashy and has a really nice, surprising character turn. There is, however, one totally absurd and hilarious plot point involving shaved genitals that I seemed to be the only one in the theater to find funny. James McAvoy and Vincent Cassel give great performances.
The Place Beyond the Pines (Cianfrance, 2013)
Call it bloated if you want, but this is an ambitious follow-up to Blue Valentine that really worked for me. It’s not just Gosling that gives a great performance; I was mostly impressed by Emory Cohen as Bradley Cooper’s character’s son. Full review HERE.
The We and The I (Gondry, 2013)
Michel Gondy is always really fun to watch, even when he fails. This film, which takes place almost entirely on a school bus and features non-actors, is really energetic and inventive. It suffers from some performance issues, particularly in its third act when the kids are called upon to actually be dramatic, but it still has all of the lo-fi charm of Gondry’s best.