Is it by luck or by design that Pierre Étaix’s final film, the cheekily political vacationer’s essay Land of Milk and Honey, ends with a crowdsourced synopsis of the director’s aesthetic—as if he’d planned to consummate his oeuvre with an ironic self-summary? While members of France’s near-bourgeoisie divert themselves from the events of 1968’s Parisian spring with karaoke and parade-watching, an off-screen woman explains, “Some people like Pierre Étaix’s dialogue, others don’t. He’s a comic who…” She pauses for a long while. And then: “He’s a physical comic.”
That Etaix was a “physical comic” whose humor concomitantly employed potentially funny verbal play rings with the paradoxical truth of a bell without a clapper. “Physique,” the word in the filmmaker’s mother tongue, fits his brand of humor slightly more snugly by virtue of its ambiguity. It could refer either to physicality or physical composition—and there are times at which Etaix’s high, rounded cheekbones are his most indelible punchline. The confusion between words that might be funny and a body that always gets laughs also points toward Etaix’s view of humanity as caught between dueling pressures—one internal and uncertain, the other external and unyielding. His movies sketch again and again the frustration of men lodged indecisively between the inward restlessness of thought (the realm of desire, and of one-liners) and the outward restlessness of an uncooperative physical world (the realm of action, and of slapstick).
Etaix’s first short, the unremarkable but charming Rupture, may act in that sense as a key to his entire cinema. In the sketch, a man wrestles with a desk and all of the materials necessary to send a rejoinder to a woman who’s mailed him a copy of his own photograph torn asunder. As each object before him rebels, the actual Etaix is reduced to the split-ness of the objectified, photographed Etaix; the character in the scene can neither control his compulsion to reply nor the tools required to do so. Remarkably, however, this exploration of a human’s inability to manipulate his environment is very obviously the product of extreme kinesthetic calculation—of body movement so acute, so precise, and so insidious that Etaix’s frustration in the scene is made less memorable than the aggressiveness with which his touch and his rigging imbues any given inanimate object. (For example: A table that insists on tilting obstreperously sideways.) There’s a fine line between humiliation and humility, and Etaix-the-performer remains perched on it, cat-like and sleepy-eyed, without so much as stumbling—even while Etaix-the-character does nothing but stumble.
An erstwhile graphic designer, vaudevillian, and then disciple to Jacques Tati, Etaix had the luck to graduate into film as the French New Wave was gathering toward its crest. It’s predictable, then, that a certain stylistic sinuousness pervades his work, and a certain relentlessness. His films are nearly bursting at the seams with endlessly sliceable, self-sufficient bits and episodes, even when they unspool to feature lengths. As Long As You’ve Got Your Health is an anthology film proper, with segments that are practically “costumed”; there are vampires a la Hammer horror, wealthy game hunters a la Renoir, and a circuitous urban traffic jam a la Tati.
One might, in fact, start to clamp this forgotten auteur down by observing how he engaged in the de rigueur flippant film-history homage of his time. Much like Godard’s or Truffaut’s, Etaix’s movies appreciate traditions, albeit impishly. From Chaplin, for example, Etaix learned the importance of timing gags within the frame, rather than through the psychological “cheat” of montage; from Keaton he learned that pathos and risibility are best balanced between the looming brow and the lissome legs. The shtick of both Chaplin and Keaton often feels weightless without seeming effortless though; it’s a crucial aspect of their art that we compartmentalize the performer from the performance, and that we root for the dexterity of the former first and foremost. (In the case of Tati this compartmentalization extends to our awareness of Tati, as director, world-building often on his own dime to give his body proper context.) Etaix by comparison projects an unabashed, if ultimately false, laziness.
One of his most imaginative works, Le Grande Amour, suggests a postmodern riff on Keaton’s beat-the-clock anti-romance Seven Chances. But while Keaton’s approach to love is proactive (his character must find a suitable bride by the end of the day to ensure an inheritance), Etaix’s is reactive. The film cycles us free-associatively through the often-unreliable memories of its protagonist’s paramour-filled past, as doubts about his current partner (Annie Fratellini) burble up to the surface on their wedding day. At one point in the desultory memoir, Etaix’s bed floats out of his house and motors on down the street, encountering leisurely country roads and other vehicularly inclined box springs and mattresses. Though the spectacle springs from the main character’s subconscious, it enables his passivity too—all he needs to do is lie back and enjoy the ride. The spectacle comes to him.
It is, in fact, this slyly faux immobility—around which raucous, ridiculous energy swirls—that’s the soul of Etaix’s humor. His characters are often funny because they lack the élan and goofy grace we expect of clowns. At the start of his most endearing film, Yo Yo, Etaix plays a disturbingly rich man who maintains a 24-hour burlesque in his opulent mansion. Yet through the hot jazz stripteases and chic African butlers in loincloths, the owner himself remains a sessile cipher, an audience member rather than a participant in the meretricious action surrounding him. (He even drives slowly around his grounds with his dog on a leash that hangs out the side window, exercising his canine without breaking a single droplet of sweat.) After the stock market crash, the character is liberated from his wealth and joins the circus—whereupon his newfound agency eventually drives him off the screen of the film, leaving it to be picked up by others. As a symbolic gesture, this narrative turn epitomizes Etaix in the same way that a woman fumbling for words to describe him does. How many other truly comedic auteurs are obsessed not just with frustration and internal conflict, but with the paralysis they produce?
The negligible supplements and barebones title of the set seem to indicate that Pierre Étaix was destined for an Eclipse release before some force intervened; one fantasizes that it was Etaix’s gangly form itself, demanding in its own quietly desperate way a high-res treatment. I’m thrilled it prevailed. These films, like those of Etaix’s mentor Jacques Tati, aren’t only pictorial (in the sense that they maximize the width, length, and depth of an image); they’re textural, too, in ways that aren’t immediately discernable. There’s the balance, for instance, of manor-bound shadow in Yo Yo’s outrageously funny opening, which reflects through fluttering light cues how wealth is both an ongoing show and an ongoing prison. With these 1080p transfers, our view of Etaix’s luckless carnival possesses precisely what his protagonists lack: lucidity, which in turn intensifies Etaix’s humor by clarifying the world he’s building gag for gag. The similarly crystalline audio has us smarting along with every pratfall.
With the above said regarding the set’s image and sound quality, there’s not much in the way of extras. The included shorts make this as comprehensive a collection of Etaix’s output as possible, but the director’s introductions are mostly production reminiscences and thoughts on how the public received each final product. The hour-long documentary included by Etaix’s wife provides a wealth of biographical detail and crucial insight into the director’s collaborative partnership with Jean-Claude Carrière, but neither truly demystifies nor enriches the films. The best bonus here is David Cairns’s extended analysis, which renders Etaix’s artistry with equal parts loopiness and trenchancy—as though textually approximating what a Hirschfeld caricature of the filmmaker might look like.
Criterion’s splendid box finally preserves Pierre Étaix’s cinema du Nouvelle Slapstick for the digital age.