The innocent, maybe even a little naive, protagonist in search of love is sort of an evergreen concept for the cinema – it’s a universal story audiences worldwide can relate to, and we’re naturally inclined to root for somebody who, maybe even in a pitiful way, doesn’t really know how to get what he or she wants. It fueled so many of Buster Keaton’s films, and Pierre Étaix certainly takes his cues from The Great Stone Face with his 1962 film, The Suitor.
Étaix plays a young man, consumed with academia until his parents decide it’s high time he be married. Apparently not thinking it terribly difficult, he takes to the streets in some new duds and starts observing how the men of Paris woo their ladies. A good chunk of the middle of this film revolves around this kind of physically-oriented set-up/punchline cycle in which he’ll see a relatively simple dating maneuver – say, buying a lady a drink or playing footsy under a table – and somehow, naturally, bungle it. And while that might seem like a fairly obvious set-up, Étaix is just the kind of clownishly creative comedian to come up with new, wild ways for even the simplest task to go wrong, never mind when even more complex tasks, such as taking an inebriated lady up to her apartment, are required.
It’s a pretty slight film, on the whole, without the kind of sociological overview that something like As Long As You’re Healthy presented, though he gets in his share of jabs. Pierre (his character is never named, but is credited as such) eventually learns a few lessons we all must – for example, that a woman’s availability or seeming perfection do not necessarily make her right for you. To the latter point, he finds himself chasing a beautiful woman he sees on TV, too bewitched by the sound of her voice and her gaze directly into the camera to even begin to consider that she’s a whole separate person with a life and past. Étaix takes this celebrity obsession pretty much as far as you can go without getting into kidnapping territory, and it’s demonstrative of how much things have changed since the early ’60s that some behavior presented as purely the stuff of comedy here would make for some very creepy, stalker-ish undertones were it in a film made today.
What really carries us past such concerns, however, is not an “it was a simpler time” mental reminder, but the sweetness of Étaix’s screen persona. He gets carried away in a manner not uncommon to a teenager, and this sort of stunted adolescence becomes more charming than concerning due to the lightness Étaix brings to his films, both in front and behind the camera. He also does himself a great favor by stacking his cast with some wonderful characters, most of whom are looking for a little romantic companionship. In his whirlwind tour of the Paris dating scene, he eventually finds himself stuck with a loud, bawdy woman who can’t help but make a scene even before she’s had too much to drink, never mind afterward. In the rush for love, many too often settle for the first available prospect, and the unfolding nightmare that is dating someone you cannot stand is confronted head-on and hilariously.
With more than a handful of great, quick visual gags, and a finale that takes place at the kind of burlesque/vaudeville show at which Étaix got his start, there’s plenty to enjoy here, with a nice, sweet center to keep any audience invested. If you’re in Portland this weekend, the film will show at the Northwest Film Center on Saturday, April 20th at 2:00, and Monday, April 22nd at 7:00, and you could do way worse with your time.