Obituary: Robert Benayoun

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The Independent Online
One of the inexplicable mysteries of French life is the exorbitant enthusiasm for the person and the movies of Jerry Lewis. Robert Benayoun, a highly respected literary and film critic, was one of his most ardent (yet clear-headed) admirers, and wrote an entertaining book about his hero, Bonjour Mr Lewis (revised and enlarged in 1989).

This work is a classic example of French intellectuality, when the critical faculty is expressed in the form of a declaration of love and an aesthetic manifesto. Jerry Lewis is the sort of comedian who makes sensitive souls shrink. He can ensure total embarrassment, and that is what fascinates Robert Benayoun. Lewis's infantile excesses and tasteless lewdnesses are a kind of blundering frankness in which Benayoun sees a violent affirmation of the truth of life.

His book is a series of portraits with lavish interviews that merge into an overwhelmingly grotesque megalomaniac megastar clown always on the verge of tears, in the most ludicrous yet banal situations, with a kind of savage beauty and awesome courage in his wildest burlesque routines. Benayoun sees in this monster the archaic figure of a primitive jester, a Pan whose irreverence appeals to the infant buried deep inside us all, and that longs to erupt irrationally, as Jerry Lewis so often does, into our primly restrictive adult world.

But how did a young Moroccan come to gain such deep insights into the dubious appeal of Jerry Lewis? Perhaps ancestral memories of holy fools and the liberating logic of figures like the Incredible Mulla Nasrudin, immortalised for us in the delightful books of Idris Shah, put Robert Benayoun on the right track, which led straight to post-war Surrealism. He was a disciple of Andre Breton, revered his writings and joined the Surrealist movement in Paris in 1948. He was also crazy about the movies, and determined to put his master's theories into practice in the Seventh Art. He began in 1950 by creating with a Greek fellow enthusiast, Ado (for Adonais) Kyrou, a small review, L'Age du cinema, which was short- lived. Then he joined the staff of a more substantial organ, Positif, that was to rival Les Cahiers du Cinema as France's (and Europe's) finest movie magazine. It was launched in 1952, and Benayoun contributed notable reviews and essays.

From 1972 to 1983 he was the always-readable film critic for Le Point, defender of the independent director, the most unpopular "literary" themes and experimental Surrealist treatments. He was a keen critic of the nouvelle vague and at the time was unusual in his championing of American comedians like Buster Keaton, Woody Allen and the Marx Brothers, those darlings of our British intellectuals. He also wrote on the work of Alain Resnais and John Huston, and composed a memorable tribute to Breton in L'Erotisme du Surrealisme (1965). Other well-received works were L'Anthologie du nonsense (1959), Le Dessin anime de Walt Disney (1961), Les Freres Marx (1980), Le Regard de Buster Keaton (1982) and Woody Allen au-dela du langage ("Woody Allen Beyond All Words", 1985).

His early cinematic efforts were only two: Paris n'existe pas (1969) and Serieux comme le plaisir (1975), scripted with Jean-Claude Carriere and with music by Serge Gainsbourg (who plays a small part). Just before his death, he had been working intermittently on a new book about Steven Spielberg, which his long illness did not allow him to complete. He lies now in Montparnasse cemetery, along with so many other writers, artists and people from the entertainment world, and near Henri Langlois, founder of the Paris Cinematheque.

James Kirkup

Robert Benayoun, critic and film director: born Port-Lyautey, Morocco 1926; died Paris 20 October 1996.