Sometimes, a collection of films can be gone in an absolute blink of an eye. Be it the lack of respect for a great majority of silent film prints throughout the years leaving many to be lost forever, or various accidents of nature resulting in the damaging or destruction of any given film. However, occasionally, films become “lost” due to something completely different.
That’s the case with writer/director/actor Pierre Etaix and the majority of his canon. After a dispute with his distribution company, the director’s films were long thought locked away tighter than a lawyer’s tie. However, that’s all changed. The films are out of the vault, dust has been swept off, the poorly stored source material has received a new glossy sheen worthy of something even greater than the almighty Criterion “C” and are now ready for complete mass consumption.
And thankfully, it’s from the aforementioned arthouse giants.
First, a bit of an Etaix-centric history lesson. Born in the late ‘20s, he was born at the exact perfect moment for a man of his comedic chops. With Keaton, Lloyd and Chaplin all at their heights, not to mention a cavalcade of others, the legendary comedian became a clown in the circus (something he would return to later on in his life) and then made the leap to short films, then feature filmmaking. Last seen in the fellow Criterion Collection-approved Aki Kaurismaki film, Le Havre, Etaix has not only had one of the truly storied careers in film but also one of the great comedic canons, despite its smaller volume. Taking cues from his experience working with director Jacques Tati, the director took a smaller, less cartoonish sense of style and humor and became one of the most beloved, yet underseen, comedians in all of cinema.
And every superlative one could imagine can truly fit this brilliant collection of sweet, charming and humorous gems.
Released in 1963, The Suitor marked Etaix’s debut behind the camera for a feature length film (he had directed shorts in ’61 and ’62, but more on those relatively soon) and on first glance, it proves to be as assured and engaging a film debut as one could ever possibly imagine laying eyes on. As with most of Etaix’s canon, the film’s premise is relatively simple. Taking a page out of the lengthy notebook of one Buster Keaton, the film tells the story of young man of privilege who is thrust into a world of put upon romance by his parents, eager for him to wed. With a lot being owed to various Keaton films ranging from Seven Chances to the celebrity centric narrative leanings of the underrated Keaton gem Spite Marriage, the picture is a truly great debut.
While it takes a minute, or more so an act, to truly get its feet under itself, it’s as effective a comedy as you’ll find within the director’s filmography. However, as far as comedians go, Etaix’s greatest attribute may very well be his filmmaking style, which itself is as far from anything his contemporaries were doing that it feels more like early-mid Godard to the occasional moment of Bunuel-esque surrealism. There are frame-spanning shots here that add not only depth to the picture Etaix is shooting, but also adds a deep sense of intrigue to the film. Every sight gag is perfectly choreographed here, and while it does ultimately feel like an immensely slight riff on the Keaton charmers of the silent age, this picture takes the Keaton aesthetic to the next level, its logical step for an era that would see the rise of filmmakers like the militant Jean-Luc Godard.
Etaix’s films, or at least most of them (save for two in particular) are not only visually inspired, but are completely and utterly crammed full of heart, life and vivacity. Very few of the director’s films live up to that bill more than his second feature film, the one he is most known for, Yoyo. Yet another Keaton-esque character portrait, the film begins with the introduction of a wealthy man who we watch become a father, whose son becomes the second half of the film’s lead character. An emotionally moving meditation on the director’s own time spent in the circus and a love letter this form of entertainment, Yoyo is the director’s own favorite film, and one can truly tell why.
Throughout his career, Etaix would prove to be one of comedy’s most pure and purely charming voices. Yoyo is this, in possibly Etaix’s most distilled form. With a dash of melancholy thrown in (as is found under the surface of much of the filmmaker’s work), the film features a cavalcade of brilliantly shot set pieces, and from the film’s opening segment one can tell that it’s something immensely personal, and even more special. The first frames of the film hint at this being an homage to Etaix’s youth, but in the case of the film’s first act, its main focus is the cinema of Etaix’s youth. A silent segment, even including title cards, act one is so full of imagination and experimentation that it becomes as lively and awe-inspiring a segment as the auteur ever crafted. And it never lets up. With photography from Jean Boffety (who would work with the director on his next two features as well as William Klein on Who Are You, Polly Maggoo), Yoyo may not (and truly isn’t) Etaix’s greatest film, but it is without a doubt his most charming and personal.
However, no director is without a flaw. One of Etaix’s two “failures,” if one is want to call them that, is his third feature length film. Entitled As Long As You’ve Got Your Health, the film is Etaix’s attempt at crafting an omnibus film, splitting his narrative up amongst four separate shorts. Bookended by the film’s strongest segments, the film is Etaix’s most slight and in many ways his laziest project in his entire canon. The best portion? The opening bit of absurdity is superb. We see Etaix, laying in bed reading a book about vampires, and we see him drift off into a dreamscape seemingly inspired by the films of Mario Bava or early Hammer pictures. When Etaix hits his notes, this type of genre/conceptual riffing becomes something more than just that. It becomes poetic. It has life injected directly into its heart. Throughout his filmography, there are moments of cinematic free jazz, taking inspirations from everything including horror films to silent cinema. Toss in the crystal clear inspiration from names like Keaton and Tati, Etaix may very well be most inspired by his time in the circus, but he is just as inspired, if not more so, but cinema.
But three years later, in 1969, Etaix came back with what is without a doubt his absolute masterpiece, and possibly one of the most underrated films of that entire decade. Le Grand Amour is an absolute masterwork of comedy and a breath-stealing look at love and romance. As melancholy as Yoyo but this time far more universal, the picture follows the story of a businessman who begins to fall for his stunning new secretary. Every stylistic and thematic aspect of Etaix’s career is featured in this picture, and in its most pure and powerful form. While inherently a meditation on upper class boredom and lust, the film takes Etaix’s aesthetic into unforeseen, Bunuel-style areas, playing like that filmmaker’s long lost comedic brother. Featuring some of Etaix’s most detailed jokes and gags, as well as some of his most emotionally resonant segments, including a dream sequence that really thrusts the film’s plot forward. It’s a breathtaking few minutes that is unlike anything he had done prior, and would ultimately prove to be unlike anything he’d do afterwards. With some of Etaix’s most gorgeous compositions (I’m thinking of shots like the star standing on a train platform arched over to see if his love, who has just left for a vacation, is out of the line of sight so that he may finally tell the woman that has caught his eye truly how he feels, this film is both Etaix’s most comedic and also his most cinematically inspired and inspiring. It’s simply one of the truly great films ever made.
And then came Etaix’s final feature, and his most experimental work. A complete and utter departure from all of his previous work, Land Of Milk And Honey is as impossible a leap for a filmmaker as we have possibly ever seen. Instead of opting for a grounded character-based comedy, Etaix jumps out of his wheelhouse, instead creating an experimental documentary seemingly ripped right out of the hands of a director like Godard. Touching on everything ranging from homosexuality to his very own career, Milk And Honey is an admirable experiment, but not much more. With so many topics being touched upon, the film feels a tad surface level, particularly when these segments have a total of just under 80 minutes to work within. The topics themselves have been seen before in Etaix’s work, particularly his meditating on class and gender, but without one clear focal point, the film feels a tad meandering. However, with some of Etaix’s most beautiful photography, the film is a stunning example of a director unwilling to stop experimenting. Akin to a film like Chronicle Of A Summer, fans of that picture will certainly find a lot of interesting ideas to mine out of this Etaix picture, but without much else.
But that’s not all this set has to offer. With his entire feature film career encompassed by this release, his short films get their just due here as well. Included within this set are new restorations of all of Etaix’s beautifully made short films, including Rupture, Happy Anniversary and Feeling Good, all of which are really quite great. Good is of extra note, as it was taken out of As Long As You’ve Got Your Health, and it’s rather interesting to see with that in mind. The short itself is absolutely fantastic, and would have added a bit of depth to the film overall. However, we have it here at our fingertips thanks to this revelatory Criterion box set, so who is to complain at this stage.
Now, as mentioned at the start of this piece, Etaix’s pictures have been a long time coming. Seemingly lost due to legal troubles, the films were restored in 2010, and they are some of the greatest transfers Criterion has given us in quite some time. Each film pops off the screen with a life and vitality that they haven’t seen since they were first shot, and they truly feel as fresh as anything filmmakers are giving audiences even today. With so many of his pictures focused on sound design and the use of sound effects, the audio restoration here is just as good and possibly even more impactful and important. All films, ranging from respected features like Yoyo to seemingly forgotten shorts are given the same respect here, with each film proving that while having multiple films on one Blu-ray disc may be troublesome, when done right, they can be just as jaw-dropping. Supplements here include introductions for all of Etaix’s films from Etaix himself, and a look at his life and work led by his wife, Odile Etaix. The box art is also rather fantastic, and the booklet includes drawings by the director, and a must-read essay from critic David Cairns.
Overall, this is yet another must-own release from The Criterion Collection. However, what makes this into something that is more than just a home video release, is that this is a definitive collection of films, in their most pristine quality, from a legendary comedic voice that has seemingly gone unheard for a handful of decades. Pierre Etaix is a welcome addition to The Criterion Collection, and a welcome addition to any cinephile’s shelves, and ultimately their hearts.
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