With the release of the Criterion Collection’s monumental box set of eight Pierre Etaix films (and Janus Films’ theatrical run that preceded it), there have been a number of pronouncements along the lines of “greatest comic filmmaker you’ve never heard of.” For the most part, this isn’t just cinephile posturing — chances are, you hadn’t heard of Etaix until recently, and even if you had, it’s unlikely you’d seen much of his work. Mostly unavailable since their initial releases due to legal disputes, the films in the small but formidable Etaix oeuvre represent a major rediscovery. There’s at least one stone-cold masterpiece in this collection.
Criterion’s two-disc Blu-ray set is nearly a complete collection of Etaix’s filmography (only a couple TV works are left out) — three shorts and five features. Etaix, who was an assistant director on Mon Oncle, surely owes a debt to Jacques Tati, and like Tati, Keaton and Chaplin, Etaix was a whole-hog auteur, writing, directing and starring in all his films. There are shades of Tati’s bemusement/cynicism with the modern world, Keaton’s persistent outsider status and Chaplin’s warm-hearted humanism here, but Etaix isn’t a second-tier imitator. Pulling on his experiences as a circus clown, Etaix made elegantly melancholy comedies that are often poignantly still when they’re not raucously funny.
The short films are a little more standard, but still expertly executed physical comedies. Rupture (1961) is a master-class in tiny comedy, as Etaix’s small gestures add up to a riot as he attempts to fire off a reply to the Dear John letter he just received. The Oscar-winning Happy Anniversary (1962) is a frantic series of pratfalls, as a beleaguered husband tries to make it home to his wife to celebrate, thoughtful errands turning into massive ordeals (and unwittingly disrupting the lives of bystanders everywhere). Feeling Good (1966) was originally part of portmanteau film As Long as You’ve Got Your Health, but was replaced by Etaix several years after release, and it’s an amusing satire of camping, even if its concentration camp imagery seems kind of heavy-handed.
The re-release version of As Long as You’ve Got Your Health (1966) is included here, and it’s the weakest of Etaix’s features simply by virtue of being so disjointed. Despite an homage to silent cinema and Méliés in its opening, the film’s four segments don’t cohere together, although all are enjoyable on their own merits. More interesting are Etaix’s three narrative features, The Suitor (1963), Yoyo (1965) and Le Grand Amour (1969), which all combine techniques of silent comedy and surrealism, framed by Etaix’s wry sense of humor.
The Suitor stars Etaix as a nebbish still living with his parents. Despite his romantic ineptitude, he snags a relationship with his brash next-door neighbor, only to realize he really would rather not see her. At the same time, he falls in love with a singer via the magic of television, and his obsessive personality finds a new target. Etaix skewers his protagonist’s fantasy life while simultaneously rendering us rapturous to it — the sequence when Etaix first sees Stella, the singer, on TV has a hypnotic quality that allows us to understand the character even as he remains generally unlikable.
Yoyo, the Fellini-esque crown jewel of the set and Etaix’s career, is marvelously funny and permeated with wistfulness. The film’s silent prologue (punctuated only by over-the-top foley effects) portrays a millionaire’s lonely existence in his chateau; constant sources of amusement can’t distract from the pain of losing the woman he loves. When the circus comes to town and she re-enters his life, she brings along their son, a tiny clown named Yoyo. Etaix stars as both the millionaire and later, Yoyo all grown up, now an extremely successful clown whose primary goal is restoring his father’s dilapidated chateau. As the years pass and Yoyo adapts (or tries to) to the changing entertainment landscape, the chateau remains his ultimate focus. Was it worth it? The film’s melancholy and absurd observations about family, career and love are fascinating, even if the film doesn’t provoke as many laughs as Etaix’s others.
No such problem with Le Grand Amour, a tale of temptation that’s much more than meets the eye, thanks to the way it plays with narrative convention. Etaix’s married man can’t help but feel dissatisfied with his wife; thoughts about past flames and his stunning new secretary conflate to stoke the restlessness. There are a few of the expected gags here (Etaix accidentally propositioning the wrong, much older secretary is stock material, but hysterical all the same), but Le Grand Amour is consistently surprising and possesses a mostly downbeat tone that sets this apart from your average sex farce.
Finishing out the set is a vastly different film, Land of Milk and Honey (1971), an experimental documentary that plays like an ironic version of Chronicle of a Summer. Etaix interviews French citizens on eroticism, violence, marriage, advertising and other societal topics, often cherry-picking obtuse responses or juxtaposing the interviews with incongruous footage for maximum ironic effect. Sometimes it feels like a bold experiment, and sometimes it feels like a restless comic genius just screwing around. Either way, it’s a nice inclusion.
All of the transfers in the set are sourced from the 2010 restorations, and the results are fantastic. Presented in 1080p high definition and 1.66:1 aspect ratios (aside from the two earlier shorts in 1.33:1), the films feature excellent sharpness, superb detail and a surprising lack of damage given the reportedly poor conditions the elements were stored under. The black-and-white films tend to look a little better, with a sharper image and consistent grayscale reproduction as opposed to the slightly faded, occasionally wavering color films, but overall, it all looks impressive. The uncompressed monaural soundtracks are just fine.
Extras include newly recorded introductions to each of the films by Etaix and an hourlong retrospective doc by Etaix’s wife, Odie. An extensive booklet features an essay by David Cairns.