If Pierre Etaix’s Yoyo (1965) is close to Tati’s work, then his Le Grand Amour is maybe related to De Sica or Fellini comedies with some Rohmer longing mixed in.
As in Yoyo, Etaix stars in the film, and accomplishes a whole lot with very little dialogue. The director is Pierre, a successful and happily married businessman who becomes infatuated with his secretary.
The structure of Le Grand Amour is one of the best parts. Etaix uses a lot of flashforwards and backs and dream/fantasy sequences. It’s easy to see how this might have been a hugely influential film had it gotten broader distribution upon its release. Here’s one of the best sections, which is whimsical, pretty, and perhaps includes a nod to Godard’s Weekend (1967).
Pierre sleeps opposite his wife Florence (Annie Fratellini, and Etaix’s wife in real life). His bed suddenly moves forward and he’s soon on a highway:
As Pierre moves onward he finds that all isn’t completely rosy in his liltingly-scored dream, encountering broken down beds and accidents:
But soon enough he finds Agnes (Nicole Calfan), his secretary, waiting for him. This first shot, as he approaches her, is pure sex. Maybe I see Bunuel in everything, or maybe it’s because Jean Claude Carriere co-wrote the script, but it’s hard not to see Bunuel getting a huge kick out of this moment:
The happy couple cruises onward until they come to a stop-
-a bed-car traffic accident blocks the way:
I love this sequence because it’s original and well-shot, but also because it’s so innocently shot and scored. The music, as referenced earlier, is haunting and beautiful. The colors are reds, greens, and then of course the pink of the bed-frame designed to match Agnes’ nightgown. And Pierre and Agnes really play up their contentment. I suppose this could be read one of two ways: their love will outlast every inconvenience; or, Pierre fails to see that anyone who embarks on such a journey is doomed to failure. It also reminds me of the dream sequence from the Simpsons episode Lisa’s Pony.
There are other really clever, hilarious sequences, including a good representation of the Parisian gossip mill that reminds me a lot of De Sica’s imagining of it in Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow (1963). Etaix isn’t only gag-driven though. The story is heartfelt and really beautiful, and he sure knows how to frame a shot:
The above shot is the conclusion of a really tricky scene. It’s near the end of the film and Etaix has gotten us so accustomed to fantasy sequences that, by the time he’s finally out with Agnes at a restaurant, we immediately assume it’s another dream.
It starts in a cafe as Pierre takes advice from his friend on how to handle a date with Agnes-
-and then cuts to the establishing shot:
It’s not only the context prior to this that indicates it might be a dream. Pierre starts by talking about taxes and finances to an obviously-bored Agnes:
But the best part of the gag is the cuts back to Pierre as he keeps talking:
The more bored Agnes gets, the more Pierre ages. It’s really funny, but also bittersweet, especially when Pierre drops Agnes off afterwards and tells her sadly, “I don’t love you anymore.” Despite the visual gags, the abrupt transition into the scene, and the unlikeliness that a man as smart as Pierre would blow his chance by talking boring management issues, it turns out that the scene plays as real, making it a curious blend of the fantasy and reality we’ve seen to this point.