Judge Clark Douglas wrote much of this review silently.
A collection of bracing and witty delights.
Buster Keaton. Charlie Chaplin. Jerry Lewis. Jacques Tati. Pierre Etaix.
If one of those names looks a little unfamiliar, you're not alone. The films of French actor/director Pierre Etaix had more or less been forgotten for decades, partially due to the fact that they were unavailable for many years due to a legal dispute. It didn't help that Etaix ended his career as a director prematurely, calling it quits after releasing the ambitious, messy documentary Land of Milk and Honey. Though Etaix continued his acting career (appearing in films like Le Havre and Jerry Lewis' infamous The Day the Clown Cried) and eventually did a bit of television directing, his most important and distinctive work slowly faded away.
Thankfully, the fine folks at The Criterion Collection stepped up to the plate and devoted themselves to remastering, re-releasing and renewing an interest in Etaix's work. Those such as myself who haven't experienced his movies before are in for a treat: an opportunity to discover one of cinema's great silent comics (albeit one working long after the silent film era). The five feature films and three shorts included in this new Blu-ray set reveal a man worthy of being compared to the all-time greats. Though it could be argued that Etaix never produced a single masterpiece on the level of Modern Times, The General or Playtime, his graceful screen presence, impeccable comic timing and distinctive cinematic voice reveal him as a truly great performer.
The short films included may actually be the strongest representation of Etaix's comic voice, as his films tend to be episodic affairs highlighted by individual set pieces rather than a compelling larger narrative. First up is the delightful Rupture, a wonderfully ridiculous bit in which Etaix does valiant battle with an ink pen and other writing materials. It's followed by the equally strong Happy Anniversary, which follows a hapless man's failed attempt to get home in time to celebrate a special day with his wife. Feeling Good doesn't quite match the brilliance of those two shorts, but it's another charming effort about a camper who finds himself in trouble for breaking campground rules.
The first and best of the traditional feature films is The Suitor, which features Etaix as an easily-distracted, scientifically-minded young man tasked with finding a wife. A great deal of humor is mined from Etaix's efforts to mimic other romantically-inclined gentlemen, generating more than a few scenes worthy of Buster Keaton. While the film does contain some dialogue, Etaix himself rarely speaks and relies more heavily on the rhythms of silent film than the modern comedies of the '60s. Yoyo is an even more ambitious effort, casting Etaix in two central roles (as a snooty, wealthy man and as the wealthy man's simple-minded son). The first half-hour of the film is nothing short of brilliant: a completely silent act that satirizes the absurdities of upper-class luxury. It never really returns to that level of brilliance once it starts permitting dialogue and places its focus on the younger character, but it's a modestly engaging film at worst.
As Long as You've Got Your Health finds Etaix working in an anthology format, which seems to suit his style quite well. The film is comprised of four segments: "Insomnia" (in which Etaix reads himself a terrifying bedtime story complete with spot-on Hammer-style horror sequences), "The Movies" (in which Etaix attempts to find a seat in a movie theatre), "As Long as You've Got Your Health" (a cheeky commentary on the fast-paced lifestyle of modern Parisians) and "Into the Woods No More" (which finds a number of forest-loving folks getting in each other's way). It's loads of fun, and a film that allows Etaix to plow through his small, funny ideas without being forced to weigh them down with a larger structure.
Etaix's last traditional feature was Le Grand Amour, a fairly predictable rom-com enlivened by the director's trademark visual wit and a handful of fun fantasy sequences. The central plot actually isn't that compelling, as it's clear that Etaix's heart is in the moments of whimsy he so frequently indulges. Clearly, this is a guy overflowing with strong ideas, but finding the best outlet for those ideas often proved a considerable challenge. Finally, we have Land of Milk and Honey, a strange documentary that easily stands as Etaix's most peculiar and least satisfying film. Though it offers some fun moments, the doc is sunk by the director's crummy attempts at irony (we see fat people walking around while participants discuss hunger, we see an overweight woman in a bathing suit when someone is discussing eroticism, etc.). Aside from a terrific sequence in which Etaix does battle with an excessive amount of documentary footage, Etaix's last film doesn't really work. Still, it's a shame that the film's poor reception essentially ended Etaix's career as a filmmaker, as it's merely an an anomaly in an otherwise distinguished and distinctive career.
Pierre Etaix: Criterion Collection (Blu-ray) fares quite well in the technical department, offering a consistently impressive supply of sharp, clean transfers. While the black-and-white features do generally look a bit more crisp than the full color ones, detail and depth are pretty solid in each feature. Land of Milk and Honey looks a bit more weathered than the others, but I suppose that's to be expected considering that it's a documentary. The audio tracks (LPCM 1.0 Mono tracks for the features, Dolby 1.0 Mono tracks for the shorts) are solid, though there are moments when Etaix's intentionally over-the-top sound effects become a little abrasive. Hissing, crackling and distortion is mostly absent in each case, though Land of Milk and Honey is once again the roughest of the bunch.
In terms of supplements, the biggest and best feature is an hour-long documentary entitled "Pierre Etaix, un destine anime," which features interviews with Etaix and his collaborators and details his career as a whole. Elsewhere, you'll also find brief introductions to each film from Etaix himself, but these tend to be spoiler-heavy, so you're better off watching them afterwards if you haven't experienced these films before. Finally, there's a terrific 54-page booklet featuring detailed thoughts from David Cairn on each of the films included.
Criterion's impressive, thorough box set offers an abundance of laughs and inventive ideas. Here's hoping that Pierre Etaix is a name cinephiles are tossing around with greater frequency in the years to come.
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