Pierre Etaix Criterion Collection Blu-ray Review: Bringing Etaix’s World to Life

“The defining characteristic of comic cinema,” says French comic, clown and filmmaker Pierre Etaix, “is that it begins with a situation everyone’s familiar with…If your initial situation is authentic, the sky’s the limit.”

Thanks to the good people at Criterion Collection, aficionados and novices of Etaix’s evacuated and unkempt cosmos of comedy can experience his works in their full glory. The Pierre Etaix Blu-ray set includes all of his films: five features and three shorts.

As critic David Cairns explains in the included booklet, “Etaix had signed his name to a distribution deal that had gone sour, and the bulk of his work in the cinema was left to molder in vaults, unseen and scarcely remembered, until a massive petition and much legal wrangling eventually got the movies liberated, restored and rereleased.”

Etaix has rightly drawn comparisons to Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin, the latter of which was one of the Roanne-born artist’s greatest influences. He grew up on the pictures of the Little Tramp and Laurel & Hardy. Jacques Tati was his mentor.

These influences show in his work, but Etaix is very much his own chic creation. He is bred on sophistication as well as the manifest silliness located within the margins of everyday life. To be a true clown, normal existence has to serve as fuel. All the giggles spring from the ordinary.

His first short, Rupture, exemplifies this. From 1961, the picture went on to win the Fipresci Prize at Mannheim and the Grand Prize at the Oberhausen Festival. As with many of his movies, Rupture comes co-written and co-directed by screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière. This 12-minute vision is the encapsulation of the physical world gone screwy.

For the protagonist of Rupture, nothing goes right. Etaix can’t hang up his suit, for starters, and his desire to send off a reply to a jilted lover becomes a comedy of preposterously intensifying blunders. The sound effects take centre stage, with details as delicate as the squeaky opening of a desk drawer swelling their own rib-tickling effects.

This is Etaix. There is idiosyncratic cadence tangled with his fender-bender with the everyday, as there is in 1962’s Happy Anniversary as the man is once again greeted with the senselessness of reality. There’s nothing uncharacteristic about being stuck in traffic, but Etaix transports us to a world that can seem out to get us.

In longer formats, the worldview magnifies. The Suitor from 1963 was intended as a run of sketches in case the producer refused to support a feature. Etaix’s Pierre is looking for a place to happen, uncomfortable in his own skin yet resolved to find a mate.

As for Yoyo, Cairns notes correctly that it can feel like a strange antecedent to The Artist. It does take things in an odd direction, even for Etaix, and its trips through time don’t seem to do it many favours.

There is also As Long as You’ve Got Your Health, a sequence of four chapters that feel desperately cynical. This angst-ridden nuance may have come about as part of Etaix’s own disenchantment after the critical licking Yoyo took and its lack of joyful conclusions may serve useful, but this feature is still couched in the filmmaker’s language of the everyday.

Incidentally, the third short featured in this Blu-ray release, Feeling Good, is a cut episode from As Long as You’ve Got Your Health.

1969’s Le Grande Amour is Etaix’s last theatrical fiction release and his first colour picture. Etaix is once again a character named Pierre. The comedy comes from the playing and replaying of the movielike tape many of us have running inside our heads, but it also comes from the concept of mocking its own structure. His now-departed wife, Annie Fratellini, is his co-star.

Finally, Land of Milk and Honey finds Etaix hazarding into the world of the documentary. This is a social critique under the pretext of covering the Europe I Podium radio tour to some of the top holiday spots in France. Etaix literally wrestles with his footage, although the lion’s share of his time is spent off-screen interviewing subjects.

If the wonderfully composed Pierre Etaix Blu-ray set tells us anything, it’s that there’s a lack of Pierre Etaix in the world. Cairns invites viewers to be thankful for what they’ve got, but it’s hard not to yearn for more from this talent whose yield is boldly minuscule.

This set features generously cleaned-up features for the Blu-ray release, providing clean images. A great deal of work went into the restorations, with many original prints damaged by time and poor storage conditions. Some pictures, like Yoyo, had been photo-chemically restored in 2007, but for the most part circumstances were dire. Audio is presented in uncompressed monaural soundtracks.

The new digital masters were made from the 2010 restoration project undertaken by Studio 37 in Paris, the Technicolor Foundation for Cinema Heritage and Groupama Gan Foundation for Cinema in Paris. Etaix supervised the restorations.

The set is also generous when it comes to features. There are new video introductions to all the films by Etaix and a 2011 documentary is a fascinating portrait of Etaix’s life. This piece, Pierre Etaix, un destin anime, features his wife Odile and runs for about an hour. It also showcases footage of Etaix as a clown and divulges his affection for American slapstick through peals of laughter.

There is little doubting the genius of Pierre Etaix, a criminally underappreciated master of the French comic mystique. This box set presents his work as completely as possible, with crisp images and beautiful introductions by the man himself. Seeing Etaix in action was once nearly impossible, but this Blu-ray release finally brings his many riches into the limelight.

Critical curmudgeon

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