In the aptly titled Yoyo, a young clown’s life follows the same ups and downs as his father’s before he too learns wealth and fortune cannot buy happiness. The film begins by following Yoyo’s father, a man whose wealth is so oppressively luxurious he pays people to have fun for him, walks his dog from the comfort of his limousine, and hires an entire traveling circus to perform a private show in his palatial chateau. His depression is evident by his pining for a woman whose picture he keeps in his desk drawer. As luck (or scheming) would have it, the same woman works at the circus he’s hired! They reconnect and he meets their son who’s performing as a clown alongside his mother. Filled with a new lust for life, the wealthy father abandons his boring lifestyle and join his family on the road.
Years pass and his son, the titular Yoyo, is drawn into WWII where he assumes the role of protagonist. Both Yoyo and his father are played by writer/director Pierre Etaix, you might miss his transition from father to son if your attention is divided between Yoyo, a subtitled 1965 black and white French clown film… and any of the infinite distractions in your smartphone. I suggest putting your phone on a run in the yard so it has a safe place to burn off all that disruptive energy while you put your nose to the grindstone and study Yoyo! Anyway, Yoyo returns to the circus after his release from wartime imprisonment and begins his own journey of self discovery. He returns to his family’s rundown chateau, develops his own gags, and establishes a career as an entertainer. Eventually he’s a world famous clown with a TV show, merchandising, and the ambition to restore his family estate into the envy of shallow socialites everywhere. Alas, Yoyo is unhappy just like his father. His parents, return from the road but won’t come inside the house to celebrate their son’s successes. They know his life beyond those doors is fortune’s fragile fulfillment facsimile. It cannot bring him the joy they’ve discovered living on the road as a family. Crestfallen, Yoyo returns to the party, realizes the lesson his father learned long ago, climbs atop a spare elephant and trots out of the party and into the sunset completing his character Arc de Triumph (I recognize this is the lowest form of humor).
I know nearly nothing of France’s storied clowning traditions and I’ve gleaned little from decidedly non-French sources. At some point I heard Sacha Baron Cohen share his experience of flunking French clown college because he didn’t take it seriously. His accounts revealed a vague world of rigid dogmatic structures and selfless commitment to one of a small variety of clowning disciplines. This premise sounds ripe with comedic opportunities and perhaps inspired Zach Galifianakis’ show Baskets about a rodeo clown who failed French clown college. Baskets also depicts France’s prestigious clowning traditions similar to Cohen’s accounts but squeezes every drop of comedic potential out of the premise where the failed clown is hardly a hero. If you haven’t seen Baskets please do. Louis Anderson gives the performance of his life in a show with champagne dry wit but because the show is American I can’t compare it to champagne so I’ll just call it ‘sparkling satire’ (a lower form of humor).
Despite all Galifianakis’ and Cohen’s mockery of the craft, Yoyo proves you can expect to be moved when an accomplished French clown takes control over whichever medium they choose. Etaix takes complete advantage of the unique opportunities filmmaking provided Yoyo. This film overflows with sight gags using mirrors and false paintings while embracing, perfecting, and reimagining the practice of showing not telling. There’re probably no more than 5 spoken words in Yoyo‘s first 30 minutes, which is great because they would only get in the way of the emotions conveyed by the careful cinematography, the Sellersesque slapstick, and miming I assume influenced Rowan Atkinson’s character Mr. Bean.
Yoyo is a delightful but acquired taste. Don’t expect a fast paced adventure film, but rather a series of gags with a simple story drawn in broad strokes; give it a watch before thinking I’m insulting it. There’s a gag at the beginning of the third act where Yoyo’s art director/marketing person presents to him a highly detailed painting of a clown they’re intending to use as a poster for his act. Yoyo flips the canvas over and makes a handful of broad strokes with chalk and suddenly… voila! There’s Yoyo, a simple picture of a happy clown.