That Pierre Étaix’s comedies do not tickle my funny bone is of no relevance to you and hardly even to me. I am not here on rain on anyone’s parade, and a parade is more than justified because Étaix’s films have finally been liberated from their lengthy and inhumane solitary confinement. Étaix apparently put his faith in the wrong people, and thanks to an exclusive distribution deal and a series of broken promises, his films were not only out of circulation for decades, they suffered from criminal neglect in poorly-maintained vaults. The deteriorating original elements were only resuscitated (mostly in 2010) thanks to the heroic labors of the combined team of Studio 37, the Technicolor Foundation for Cinema Heritage, and the Groupama Gan Foundation for Cinema. As well as M. Etaix, of course.
Étaix was a circus performer (clown, acrobat, you get the impression he did a little bit of everything) before he came to cinema. The circus is my vision of hell on Earth, but that is also of no relevance. Étaix loves the circus and it lives and breathes in virtually every frame of his films which mostly star the director as an everyday clown in various guises. He served his film apprenticeship under the great Jacques Tati, providing gorgeous illustrations that influenced the design of “Mon Oncle.” Viewers will notice an undeniable resemblance between the two filmmakers, though Étaix’s movies are not quite the symphonic compositions from Tativille and its environs. Étaix’s movies are more a jumbled stack of sight gags, often spilling out onto the screen for no discernible reason save that the director just liked the joke. A laugh is the only necessary motivation.
This two-disc Blu-ray collection from Criterion consists of three shorts and five features, all filmed from 1961 to 1971, and all co-written with screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière, a long-time friend of Étaix’s. “Rupture” (1961, 12 min.), the first short, is an efficient introduction to the artist’s universe, establishing what will become a familiar formula: a bumbling man played by Étaix struggles, usually with a good-natured smile though sometimes with perplexed impatience, to negotiate his way through a hostile environment. The worlds makes things as tough as possible, and he copes as best he can.
In “Rupture” the simple attempt to answer a poison love letter proves potentially fatal as the main character cannot catch a single break. His pen won’t work, he can’t figure out how to use his scissors, furniture collapses, and even his chair wants to give him the old heave-ho. I admit that the humor here is precisely the kind that tries my nerves – things keep falling off your desk because it’s tilted so stop putting them back on it, man! – but that is, yet again, of no relevance. The gags are all deftly staged even when as they race to pile on top of one another creating the general effect of watching a live-action cartoon. The second short “Happy Anniversary” (1962, 13 min.) sees Étaix trying to drive back home for dinner with his wife in a crowded city where his car makes for too many. Étaix effortlessly stages his bits in a less controlled environment than the room in “Rupture.” His move from the circus to the cinema was flawless.
“Anniversary” won the Oscar for Best Live Action Short and helped launch his career as a feature director. Most of the features still feel like a collection of shorts, however, as Étaix lives more for the moment (and always for the laugh) than the grand narrative. “The Suitor” (1963, 84 min.) is a bizarre feature debut, starring Étaix as an arrested development shut-in who abruptly abandons an obsession with astronomy for a new obsession with women, these strange beings from another planet who he apparently never noticed before. He prowls the streets of Paris as a mostly innocent stalker who learns to live with the serial disappointments that occur when reality doesn’t match fantasy. The film was both a critical and commercial hit.
Étaix speaks plainly about “Yoyo” (1965, 98 min.): “I put everything I love into it.” That includes his parents (his father had recently died in an accident) and, of course, the circus. Étaix plays dual roles as a wealthy father who loses everything in the depression and (after a ten year leap in the story) the son who becomes a clown and eventually regains the family’s wealth. Étaix’s bonhomie is so infectious that even a circus-hating freak like me can’t help but be moved by the affectionate portrait of both the itinerant entertainer’s milieu as well as the series of characters who materialize out of thin air just for their one joke before exiting stage left.
In both films, Étaix’s affinity for anarchic silent film comedy (Buster Keaton is a more pronounced influence even than Tati) is evident with an emphasis on long, fluid takes, a reliance on physical performance (Etaix the acrobat is graceful in his gracelessness), and a minimum of dialogue. None of the films in the set is silent, but most are silent-ish, though one of their defining qualities is the evocative, self-conscious soundtrack. Comically overmixed sound effects lend an off-kilter aura to mundane objects: rusty hinges do not just squeak as doors open, they SKREEEEECH.
Étaix makes his sketch structure manifest in his four-part “As Long as You’ve Got Your Health” (1966/1971, 68 min.) “Yoyo” had not been a hit and Étaix had to beg for money for this film. It was originally released in 1966, but he radically re-edited it in 1971, cutting out one section (now included on this disc as the short film “Feeling Good”) and inserting an older but unreleased short film, “Insomnia,” as the opening (I should note here that there is disagreement among sources. The titles that introduce the film say “Insomnia” was shot in 1962; the essay by David Cairns describes it as the last of the shorts to be filmed in 1966). The shorts have no apparent connection, not even in tone. “Insomnia” is a lark in which a man (Étaix, of course) reads a horror novel and then envisions it playing out, all while trying to stay awake and not get too scared. The third short, which shares the film’s title, depicts a Paris polluted by noise, exhaust fumes and excess traffic both of the vehicular and pedestrian kind. It’s a kind of apocalypse, but if you greet it with a smile, maybe you’ll get by.
I have not yet had the opportunity to watch the last two films. “Le Grand Amour” (1969, 87 min.) co-stars Étaix’s then-wife Annie Fratellini (also a circus clown) and was his first feature shot in color. “Land of Milk and Honey” (1971, 76 min.) is a documentary about the Europe 1 Podium Radio Tour though, by all accounts, it is anything but typical concert footage. It would be Étaix’s last film as, in 1971, he returned to his first love by touring with the Pinder Circus and has mentored many performers since then, though he has continued to direct television and also to act in film (most recently appearing in Aki Kaurismaki’s “Le Havre.”)
Pierre Étaix is 84 now and has only recently been reintroduced to the film world with the well-received retrospective of his films that has toured the globe since their legal freedom and restoration in 2010. His films are so likeable I feel truly guilty that I don’t find them funny, but they’re charming and undeniably the product of a gifted visionary able to pull off the incredibly difficult trick of making comedy look easy.
Étaix’s films were left in a sorry state due to neglect, and a combination of photochemical and digital restoration was needed to salvage them. The quality of the restoration varies with the weakest moments showing up in “As Long As You’ve Got Your Health,” especially in the short “Insomnia” where it looks like quite a bit of clean-up was necessary; the image here is still quite good but just looks a bit soft throughout, lacking the sharpness and image detail evident in other films. “The Suitor” and “Yoyo” both look pretty darn good, perhaps not with razor-sharp black-and-white contrast (mostly white – Étaix’s films have a bright design) but nothing to complain about. “Land of Milk and Honey” shows some signs of wear (at least from the ten minutes I sampled) but is strong enough.
“Le Grand Amour” and “Land of Milk and Honey” are in color, as is the “Insomnia” segment of “As Long As You’ve Got Your Health.” Everything else is in black-and-white. “Rupture” and “Happy Anniversary” are presented in 1.33:1 aspect ratios, the other films in 1.66:1.
The linear PCM Mono tracks on all the films are clean though it’s hard to judge how “true” they are since most of Étaix’s films have an unusual combination of silence and loudly mixed sound effects. There’s nothing dynamic here, but I don’t think there’s supposed to be. Optional English subtitles support the French audio.
The two-disc set includes three short films and five features. Disc One: short films “Rupture” and “Happy Anniversary” and features “The Suitor” and “Yoyo.” Disc Two: short film “Feeling Good” and features “As Long As You’ve Got Your Health,” “Le Grand Amour” and “Land of Milk and Honey.”
Étaix provides short introductions for each of the feature films as well as for the first two shorts. Each introduction runs from about four to seven minutes and was recorded within the last few years. Étaix really comes across as a gentle and sincere artist, and these intros provide viewers even more reason to admire him.
The other extra is the the documentary “Pierre Étaix, un destin animé (2011, 61 min.), directed by the director’s wife Odile Étaix. The documentary mixes recent interviews with Étaix and Jean-Claude Carrière with archival footage, including some snippets of Étaix hanging out with his admirer and long-time friend Jerry Lewis. We also get to see many of the drawings Étaix prepared for Jacques Tati.
Pierre Étaix’s films have finally been liberated from distribution hell, and this two-disc set presents all of his works from his most fertile decade (1961-1971) in one fantastic package. Five features, three shorts, a fine documentary, and a series of intros that will instantly endear the actor-director-all-around entertainer to generations getting their first opportunity to discover his work. Writer Jean-Claude Carrière’s collaborative role is also emphasized so much that cinephiles might start linking Carrière’s name more with Étaix than Bunuel from here on out. By any measure, this is a fantastic set from Criterion that helps to right one of cinema’s injustices.