Blu-ray / DVD: The genius of ‘Pierre Etaix’

Pierre Etaix (Criterion)


Circus acrobat, clown, cabaret star, artist, actor, and for a brief time director, Pierre Etaix (pronounced eh-TEX) is one of the great comedy treasures of France. It wasn’t meant to be a secret, but his relatively small body of work as a director—he made five features (four comedies and a documentary) and three comedy shorts between 1961 and 1971—was out of circulation for four decades due to legal issues. They were freed only in 2009, restored in 2010, and rereleased in France to great acclaim. Seeing them for the first time is a revelation.

His debut short Rupture (1961), a nearly wordless one-man show with Étaix as a jilted lover whose entire world quite literally comes apart around him while he tries to write a response to a break-up letter. He won an Oscar for his second short film, Happy Anniversary (1962), where he’s on the losing side of a war with modern urban life while his wife awaits his return home. The dialogue is spare to say the least—his films could play sans subtitles and be just as effective—and he uses music just as sparingly. The audio punchlines are all in the cartoonish sound effects pumped up to a surreal prominence.

Yoyo

His masterpiece is Yoyo (1965), an almost silent comedy that in fact begins with an evocation of the silent era and ends with a wry jab at sixties TV culture. Étaix directs, co-writes (with Jean-Claude Carrière, his collaborator on every film except his documentary), and stars in two roles: a ruined millionaire who joins the circus with a beautiful trick rider and his own grown son, who becomes a celebrated clown and returns home to restore the neglected mansion. It’s quite gentle and sweet, with a quiet yearning under his masterful comic performance and hilarious comic inventions, but Étaix is a gag man first and foremost and “Yo-Yo” is filled with brilliant and sublime gags and physical humor.

As both filmmaker and comic screen persona, the obvious comparisons are to Jacques Tati and Buster Keaton: the silent movie clown in a sound world. He worked with Tati as a gag writer and cartoonist, creating Tati’s trademark caricature used on many of his film posters, and he is a master at shaping a visual gag with the grace of a dancing master and the imagination of a cartoonist. His hangdog expression, poised between curiosity and measured focus, has the shadow of Keaton’s stone-faced resilience in the face of adversity.

But where Tati refuses to let the confounding modern world phase his optimism, and Keaton overcomes adversity with inspiration and tenacity, Etaix simply endures, resigned to every setback and compromise in a modern social culture he can never quite fit into. In that, and in the way Etaix keeps rolling his visual punchlines into a new gag, he shares a sensibility (if not exactly a temperament) with Jerry Lewis, a director he admired so much he wrote a book about him. Like Lewis, the Etaix protagonist is a man at odds with the world around him. He is, however, much more discreet and elegant in the way he loses his tangles with social conundrums and physical obstacles.

In his debut feature The Suitor (1962), Étaix takes on a variation of the classic Keaton character of the obsessive, pampered, rich young man trying to woo a woman. Any woman. While not exactly bittersweet— there’s very little bitter in his comedy—there is a twinge of sadness as we see a city romantically paired up but for this oblivious yet obsessive naïf, who is always one beat behind rhythm of life around him. And “Yoyo” aside, Etaix is no romantic, as his perfectly modulated finale shows, twisting the expectations of a happy ending into yet one more denial. Fate may not exactly be cruel, but it has a sadistic streak to its little practical jokes.

Le Grand Amour

Le Grand Amour (1969) presents Étaix as a happily married man infatuated with his pretty young thing of a new secretary. The rush of ardor turns him back into teenager, as nervous as he is reinvigorated, and stirs an imagination that we can only assume had settled into routine, and inevitably will return to routine. There’s no real heartbreak or character complexity here, but behind the humor is the suggestion that his entire life has been a compromise, giving in to social expectations and obediently falling into line as he follows the career mapped out by his father-in-law. Yet the inventive flights of comedy can be thrilling, especially a dream sequence that riffs on the idea of beds driving down country roads like cars with one inspired gag after another, yet never loses the romantic charge of the fantasy. As long as it remains in dream form.

As Long As You’ve Got Your Health (1966), a portmanteau of four short comedies of modern life, is Etaix at his most mordant. Apart from an awfully funny opening sequence, an almost cartoonish series of gags around a man reading a horror novel before bedtime (Etaix added this, the only color sequence in the film, a few years after its initial release), it is an almost nightmarish portrait of modern urban living hidden played out in the humor of disappointment and disaster. Etaix sends his hapless alter-ego through one otherwise benign situation after another—a trip to the movies, a day in the countryside, a simple check-up with the doctor—where the stress of an overtaxed urban existence and the indifference of a self-involved population wreaks havoc on the lives of others. It’s like Mr. Bean has been dropped into a Kafka novel, but it’s not bureaucracy that wears you down, it’s simply fellow citizens who don’t even acknowledge your existence. In this world, the best you can hope for is enduring your getaway and getting out without losing too much. It’s the funniest portrait of a culture of apathy and entropy you’ll ever seen.

This film originally included another comedy short, which Etaix removed and released separately: Feeling Good (1966), which spoofs the modern camping experience as an overly-regimented version of suburban culture with tents in place of tract homes. Perhaps he felt it was too optimistic; in this one, our hero breaks free of the social prison camp.

I confess, I did not make the time to see the final film of the set, the documentary Land of Milk and Honey (1971) his portrait of French society in the aftermath of 1968, but based on his fictions, this set is the home video discovery of the year.

On Blu-ray (two discs) and DVD (three discs), with video introductions by Etaix on every film except the short “Feeling Good” (recorded in 2010 with a still sharp and energetic Etaix, who participated in the restoration of the films) and the 2010 documentary Pierre Etaix, un destin animé, a portrait of the life and work of the artist made by his wife, Odile Etaix. The booklet features an essay by critic David Cairns.

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