"Le Grand Amour" (1969) is a delightful, surrealist French comedy, a celebration of free form filmic narrative that employs a wholly playful visual approach to the stream of consciousness device. A routine plot of a bourgeois French businessman falling for his beautiful young secretary is given a refreshingly original and unconventional treatment that would please the fans of Luis Bunuel and older silent era slapstick comedies alike.
Etaix's film is not so much about the premise than it is about its highly inventive stylistic methods of storytelling. It is a testament to the power of cinematic language in conveying the infinite ideas and feelings that occupy the complex human mind. The entire film is narrated by the lead character Pierre, played by writer-director Pierre Étaix, who taps the medium of the motion picture to his maximum advantage in order to tell his story and reveal his deepest thoughts in a visually enchanting, and entertaining manner that has to be seen to be believed.
Random musings of the brain come alive in flashbacks resulting in hilarious visuals. "When I think about it, I could have married lots of others", Pierre muses and instantly we see Pierre getting married to a whole gang of brides! We see, as Pierre narrates. Every little detail of his thought process, no matter how whimsical and absurd, manifests itself visually on screen.
Etaix's comic flair ensures that despite a wafer thin plot, the viewer is hooked and thoroughly entertained throughout the duration of the film. Etaix fulfills the challenge rather effortlessly by showcasing an all-round talent of superlative acting, great writing and its equally great transformation to the screen. A Bunuel-esque bourgeois take-down is evident in the depiction of the mannered existence of Pierre's wife Florence's (Annie Fratellini) family. A wildly funny propagation of a grapevine among gossipy older women shows how Pierre's innocuous doff of the hat to a lady in the park turns into a full-on romp in the bushes!
Ironically, the distortions of facts are not limited to the ladies that Etaix satirizes. He lets the audiences have a good laugh on his own self in that superb gag in which he cannot make up his mind as to where he met Florence, whether on the terrace of a café or inside it. As he switches constantly between the locations, the vexed waiter who is actually part of the recollection jumps out of the story and asks him to make up his mind!
In other funny instances, we see exact contradictions to what Pierre is imagining or narrating. A striking example is the very ignorant notion of how he might have broken two hearts, those of his childhood sweethearts by deciding to marry Florence. Ditto for that deliriously absurd turn in which he declares to Florence's mother that he had decided not to marry Florence, and yet we see them getting married eventually. Or even that very universal bit in which local perceptions of Pierre's marriage are thwarted by juxtaposing disheartening gossip against a visibly healthy marital coexistence.
Considering Pierre's system of habitation and the fact that he has in a way, married into Florence's family perhaps makes him feel suffocated. Pierre and Florence reside just a storey above his in-laws and the fact that he has taken over his father-in-law's tannery business, makes him feel uncomfortable, a situation from which he seeks freedom of the mind. This freedom comes in the form of the comely young secretary, Agnes (Nicole Calfan), all of eighteen, with an extremely cute, innocent face, but not the strictly naïve kind either.
Pierre, who feels he got married much earlier in age and perhaps agreeing that it was wrong to marry a woman his own age, now begins to feel an unrelenting attraction to the much younger Agnes. Etaix makes the viewer see through Pierre's lens as the camera looks lovingly at Agnes, almost as if seeking the viewer's approval about how it is not unnatural for a bored man in his 30s to fall for her charms!
Astonishingly, we almost always see Agnes through the eyes of Pierre and his wildly outrageous fantasies, the best of which comes in the form of the extraordinary bed-on-wheels segment, when Pierre embarks on a hauntingly beautiful dream, snug in bed with Agnes in a teeny nightie; except they aren't really making love on this bed, just lying in each other's arms and travelling freely, as the bed glides along on its wheels (!) along an empty but beautiful country road. Along the way, they pass other dreamers-on-beds by, one of them perhaps a hospital bed, with a man in a cast!
The USP of the film are these fantasies and the seamless blending of these sequences with reality, in a marvelous job of editing which is intelligently thought out, carefully executed, and far from random. The comedic flavor of course, adds to the entertainment quotient, almost to the same degree as the jaw-dropping imagination, a product of the combined genius of Etaix and the great Jean-Claude Carriere. It is interesting to note, that the slapstick part mostly comes only during the bits which aren't strictly real, in a way as to mock the absurdity of stories told, either through a grapevine or through someone’s wild imagination.
Ultimately, "Le Grand Amour" becomes a unique venture that combines slapstick with the psychological realm, thereby distinguishing itself from the considerably broader, literal action oriented comedy of the silent era, and yet retaining its entire comic flavor, evident from a whole lot of incredibly funny moments sprinkled throughout. The heightened colours and use of buoyant music beautifully complement the film's joyful universe.
The only tiny grouse that bothers is the wrapped-up ending that comes off as very convenient and visibly lacking in ingenuity as compared to what comes before it. The cyclical as well as prophetic form that the conclusion takes, making the gossip mongers happy comes off as a bit too conventional for a film so remarkably offbeat.
It is a minor speck that deserves forgiveness, however, for by that point, Etaix has your heart conquered with his charming ode to free love.