Home Video Hovel: Pierre Etaix, by Scott Nye
Of the great many things The Criterion Collection does so greatly, I’m always particularly pleased when they blindside us with some magnificent artist of whom I’d never heard. Pierre Étaix was not quite on that level, having finally – after decades of legal complications – seen his films back in circulation this past fall thanks to Criterion collaborator Janus Films, but, having not had the opportunity to see that touring show myself, this was pretty damn close. On top of which, here is a two-disc Blu-ray set containing every single film the man ever made (five features and three shorts, made between 1961 and 1971), giving us a uniquely digestible account of a truly great filmmaker whose legacy has been hampered only by lawyers and money men. That anyone can now suddenly consume the totality of his work is a tremendous gift, and one I took great delight in unwrapping.
Étaix came from the circus and vaudeville houses before landing a gig writing gags for Jacques Tati (Mon Oncle, M. Hulot’s Vacation, later Play Time), whose filmmaking method was a very clear influence on him, though – tempting as it may be to view silent-comedies-with-sound set in major metropolitan areas as purely a Tati rip-off – he’s clearly consumed such a breadth of artistic inspirations that it’d be a mistake to say it’s as simple at that. The Suitor (1963) owes a lot to Buster Keaton, Yoyo (1965) to Federico Fellini, Le grand amour (1969) to Buñuel (though that’s complicated by Étaix’s co-screenwriter, Jean-Claude Carrière, having also written extensively with the Spanish surrealist), and As Long As You’ve Got Your Health (1966) to nearly the entire history of cinema to that point, though none are mere homages. Étaix’s onscreen persona is all his own, somebody who, as described by David Cairns in the booklet accompanying this release, “wants to fit in and seem well equipped to do so. The various [characters] he plays do their best to give society exactly what it demands but find life curiously uncooperative…the world of Étaix seems to reject everybody, however hard they try to adjust.” Furthermore, his visual style is so acutely developed without having been over-thought that to attribute it to even a series of influences seems reductive. The visual and storytelling scheme of Yoyo alone, which begins as a nearly-silent film, complete with intertitles, and ends as a full-on-talkie, beautifully transitioned along the way, is outstandingly ambitious (and was rejected at the time for this quality), so much a part of the expressive landscape of European cinema at the time yet completely apart from it.
I suppose it would do to say a little in the way of what these films are about, but plot summaries will only get you so far. Yoyo possibly excepted (though its decades-spanning story of a riches-to-rags father and the son he brings up in the circus has more than two), plot points are not numerous in Étaix’s films. The Suitor is about a man searching for a wife, while Le grand amour is about a man trying to cheat on his. As Long As You’ve Got Your Health is actually made up of four short films, and goes the furthest towards defining what his work is really “about,” which is more simply the difficulty of simple existence in the mid-20th century, so crammed together were (are) we against one another that even the simplest action – a table scooting to one side, a shoe briefly removed, a salutation in the park – can have disastrous (though, in Étaixland, hilarious) consequences. Comedy is the wide shot, they say, and as a director, he mostly keeps his camera pulled back to observe the unfolding chaos, but his close-ups are notable in quickly conveying the imperceptible shifts in one’s environment, the type of things going on all around us to which we are entirely oblivious.
The one film I’ve not yet mentioned is The Land of Milk and Honey, which is a documentary Étaix was commissioned to make about French society in the late 1960s (most notably, following the events of May 1968), and is obviously quite a departure from his rigorously-arranged comedies, but a certain documentary quality was rarely entirely absent from his work. Unlike Tati, Étaix didn’t construct enormous cities in sound stages – he staged his chaos in the streets, in apartments, offices, and an enormous chateau. Thematically, it makes more real his sort of let-everyone-in attitude present in As Long As You’ve Got Your Health and shorts Happy Anniversary (which won the Academy Award for Best Live Action Short Film) and Feeling Good, presenting a portrait of French society not often exported, one a little more pathetic and debased (an eating contest is a particularly nasty sight). It may not be my favorite film in the set, nor as artistically rewarding as his more overt comedies, but it presents a vital angle to his filmmaking.
From a simple consumer vantage point, this is an extraordinary value for your money, giving you a wealth of cinema for less than the cost of two regular Criterion Blu-rays. All of the films were restored to 35mm for the touring repertory show, and consequently look magnificent now on Blu-ray. Yoyo in particular is a marvel, truly shimmering on the screen with all the magic of black-and-white photography, and the multiple color schemes (black-and-white, full color, sepia tones, and a section influenced by German expressionism’s blue-tinted wonders) in As Long As You’ve Got Your Health are ecstatic. The full-color films bring out the richness of a 35mm print, nicely bold without being overwhelming or terribly digitized. I couldn’t find a trace of excessive damage, everything was crisp and beautiful, and even though there’s a ton of content on each disc, neither exhibited any compression artifacts I could see. Really stunning altogether.
The special features are fairly limited – some introductions by Étaix to all the features, an hour-long documentary on his career, as well as the aforementioned booklet – but all do a lot with their limited time. The documentary, made by Étaix’s wife, is lovely, gathering together many of his collaborators (sometimes putting Étaix himself in the room with them to reminisce), and recounting this very brief, but extraordinarily productive period of his life and career. David Cairns’ enthusiastic essay goes a long way towards lending a critical perspective to the films, but honestly, they’re just so very enjoyable on their own, the paucity of supplements is almost complementary (or complimentary) with regards to the simplicity of the films themselves. This is easily in the running for one of the best Criterion releases of the year, which in turn makes it one of the best home video releases of the year.