The work of Pierre Etaix has long had its admirers in Jacques Tati, Woody Allen, and other well-known comics. Legal issues kept Etaix’s work out of circulation for decades, but the Criterion Collection has rescued the director’s films from archival damage and obscurity for Pierre Etaix (Criterion Collection), a three-disc set that provides as much social commentary as slapstick.
Before he made his own films, Etaix worked under two diametrically opposed masters of French cinema. Robert Bresson and Jacques Tati. The two masters could hardly be more different, but the touch of both mentors is evident from Etaix’s first short film, The Rupture (1961). The film looks at one man (Etaix) composing his reply to a Dear Jean letter. Outwardly poker-faced, like Buster Keaton crossed with Vincent Gallo, Etaix’s character is tormented inside, a conflict revealed by his increasing difficulty with the mechanics of written communication. The sound effects of the interior world that fall apart around him are like something straight out of Tati; the tense hands that grasp at and fail to put quill to paper are like something out of Bresson’s Pickpocket, the expert thief’s coordination falling apart. The short film neatly sums up Etaix’s approach to comedy. Tati’s work was marked by observation of ordinary life, but his Hulot mainly observed rather than participated in life. Etaix’s persona is that of a man who wants dearly to participate but is stymied at every turn. He takes the observation of ordinary life and injects a modern anxiety.
The Suitor (1962) is a striking feature debut. Etaix plays a bachelor living with elderly parents who would like to see their son married off, perhaps to the German au pair who Etaix asks to marry him early in the film. Over credits that suggest a space age landscape, we meet the titular anti-hero dreaming in his study, clipping a busty pin-up from a magazine only to hang it over his desk for the page of dry statistical charts on one side. His study looks like something out of an episode of Hoarders, as the suitor has blocked himself off from the world with books and the mind at the expense of people and the body. His attempts to find a suitable fiancée are awkward. In The Suitor , Etaix has the observational flair of Tati but not the charm. What he does have that Tati’s Hulot lacks is a willingness to make that human connection. Tati rarely gets the girl in his films. Etaix, at least in this instance, desperately wants to connect.
Yoyo (1965) is a more difficult film, hailed by some but more tied to its influences than other Etaix works. His influence in this case is Federico Fellini. Etaix was fascinated by 8 ½ and introduced Felliniesque circus themes into this story of a man trying to regain his family fortune. The most successful parts of the film are its least funny. When the young man returns to find his expansive childhood home overgrown and left to the elements, it’s like The Magnificent Ambersons as a tragicomedy.
Yoyo’s commercial failure led to compromises with his next feature, As Long as You Have Your Health (1966). It was originally edited to make a cohesive narrative out of five discreet short films, but Etaix re-edited it in 1971 to include only four separate shorts. The first of these is the weak Insomnia, its gags simply not funny, but the anxiety that builds in the remaining segments makes it clear that this funny man finds all is not well with the world. As Long as You Have Your Health is a frightening look at the modern fall of man through construction, destruction, and medicine, and anticipates the gentler urban disintegration of Tati’s Playtime.
Le Grand Amour (1969) is Etaix’s most expensive and ambitious film. The director had the biggest budget of his career, with elaborate sets and a huge color film crew. He felt this of all his films was the one that ended up the way he envisioned it. Etaix’s features to date had been about the ethereal nature of a modern world where things fall apart. In Le Grand Amour, he bitterly uses this disintegration to plot the failure of a marriage, inspired by his own tough divorce. One wonders the particulars of Etaix’s situation, but it’s hinted at in the different between perception and narration. Things began badly, the narrator Pierre laments, while what we see on screen are things not going badly at all. Until his mother in law, spotting her son in law doffing his hat to a girl in the park, sets off a sequence of distorted gossip. We do not hear what the biddies say to each other, but Pierre’s walk in the park is recreated each time to show what the biddies imagined they saw. Etaix calls the film slapstick vaudeville, but more even than that it’s a slapstick Rashomon, showing how what we see and what we think we see can differ to a tragic extent. At the same time, Etaix’s slapstick vaudeville seems to be invoking Ozu, in establishing shots of a factory chimney billowing smoke that recall what were called Ozu’s pillow shots. Etaix’s homage to the Japanese director shows that he’s after something more domestic than his comic persona would have you believe.
Etaix’s final feature was a wild departure in form, but is in essence a harsh summation of his fiction work. He began to shoot the footage that became The Land of Milk and Honey (1971) while accompanying his then-wife to a music festival where he thought all of the singers were horrible. Three months and tens of hours of footage later, after visits to seaside vacation spots and the Tour de France bicycle race, Etaix had loads of content but no context. He spent seven months editing the material into his final film. Etaix’s fiction features clearly presented the modern world and a difficult and dangerous world to maneuver, and when he trained his camera on reality, he found that the common people had imperfect bodies and vapid minds. He never made another fiction feature, though his long career since then has included directing for television and acting, from a bit part in Jerry Lewis’s legendary unreleased film The Day the Clown Cried to a role in Aki Kaurismäki’s recent Le Havre.
Each feature in the set is preceded by a recent interview with the director. These are the only extras on the set, but they are informative and show a still charming elder statesman of French slapstick, a former leading man ready for a new spotlight.