Directed by Pierre Etaix
Over the course of the last few months, I’ve become heavily fascinated by physical cinema (pretend I just made a porn joke and it was fairly humorous). By that, I mean that of both the physical comedy and the Kung Fu movie as I have yet to dip my toes into the world of Fred Astaire and would gladly welcome recommendations. This film is of the former category and is a far more recent exploit than what I have been preoccupying my time with (though Chaplin’s films do reach well into this era) and due to this, it seems to openly celebrate and mourn the loss of this genre’s roots.
The plot is expansive and complex, spanning two generations, a depression, a world war, and the advent of the television and its subsequent take over in regards to entertainment by spectacle. According to the booklet that came with this collection, it is compared 2011’s “The Artist” and for good reason. Both carry the melancholy of being remnants of a bygone era and both are French films whose stars would feel oddly at home alongside Chaplin and Keaton.
However, “The Artist” is more direct in its appeals, more obvious. “Yoyo” subtly employs various film tactics that pull the viewer through this changing world, such as it’s clever sound design. The film begins with rudimentary sound, being almost completely silent save for garish sound effects like the loudest squeaking doors known to man. Yet as the world changes, and we shift between protagonists, transitioning from a millionaire to his clown son (both played by Etaix, a fact which perplexes but makes a throwaway opening gag with various paintings of Etaix in different era costumes all the funnier), so too does the sound become more complex, and soon we are ambushed with bustling room noise, more naturalistic sound, and even dialogue.
“Yoyo” also differentiates itself from “the Artist” by carrying with it an awareness and critique on the nature of success. In the latter film, success is happiness. When it is lost, Valentin (played expertly by Jean Dujardin)becomes lost and depressed. Here, it is portrayed almost as a punishment due to it becoming the end itself, rather than a means to happiness. There’s a lovely scene when Yoyo speaks to Isolina (the beautiful Claudine Auger)about how everything he makes goes into the mansion he has bought and he is flabbergasted as to how she can question why he doesn’t sell it. In this regard, and the final mansion sequence seems to be a direct homage to my eyes, that Etaix carries a more similar perception on wealth and opulence to Renoir and his “Rules of the Game”.
Through simultaneously juggling complex themes and clever visual gags, it is also easy to draw comparisons to Jacques Tati but Etaix pushes through and carves his own unique identity in this genre. He is not perplexed by this modern world like Tati, outraged by it like Chaplin, or victim to it like Keaton. His characters (this is Etaix’s second film and I am watching them in a row, so perhaps this is premature)seem to be driven by a desire to fit in but the world does not accept him without compromising himself. Even here, his success as a performer (or whatever his father had been successful doing) only leads to further alienation from who he needs to be.
However, when taken as a broader concept, this pessimism seems to be an integral part of the physical comedy genre. While having hilarious gags (and this one has many but what’s the fun in spoiling them for you? I’ll just say my favorite involves a hatchet, a clown, a busy office, and a secretary), they almost always carry with them an inherent tragedy with their characters. The protagonists are almost always sad, whether they show it or not. It is a far cry from the forced happy endings and predictable character arcs where they conquer their adversaries (be them human or societal). These films seem at conflict with modernity but also accept that it isn’t a winnable fight. Globalization, industrialization, and all sorts of “izations” are going to happen and the lone individual who cannot adapt is left with little choice but to joke about it while it happens. Yet even more tragically, with the advent and rise of prominence of the talkie, so too went the means that these men were communicating these brilliant jokes. Late comers like Tati and Etaix are simply the guys stubborn enough to try and go back, even with recognition that it’s almost futile to do so.
With all this said, I am glad men like Etaix tried because they still captured magical, whimsical, and lovely cinema. People like Hazanavicius and Chomet may also create great films like “The Artist” and “The Illusionist”, but they are but echoes of a movie like this and artists like Etaix.
In closing, if you are interested in physical comedy, Etaix is a master and even after two films and two shorts, I love his work. Unlike his previous film, “The Suitor”, “Yoyo” is more tightly linked to past comedies and tragedies, directly homaging and nodding to Chaplin, Marx, Fellini, and Renoir so it may not be the greatest jumping off point for newcomers into the genre. I regret speaking in such broad terms when analyzing this film but it is due to that virtue that I felt it would be disingenuous to do anything but that.
It is a lovely film and well worth seeking out.