Pierre Etaix: Criterion Collection DVD Review: Affordable Pricelessness

For many of the “average” citizens living within the confines of the continental United States of America, the concept of viewing French comedy is on-par with sitting around in coffee shops drinking itsy bitsy cups of coffee whilst talking about art and folk music: that which is perceived by the ignorant, uneducated masses who have been raised under the impression that NASCAR and Coors Light make the world go ’round to be artsy-fartsy-hippie-liberal-faggoty stuff. Of course, what they fail to realize is that – as Morrissey once crooned – America is not the world. And both NASCAR and Coors Light suck, too. But that’s irrelevant, really – as is just about everything I have said up until now.

Did I mention I grew up in a redneck community? Perhaps I should try backtracking a bit there to exclude most of the pent-up hostility I hold for the kind of people who would have elected Sam Walton as US President (had he ran) and rephrase that: “Most Americans aren’t overly familiar with French comedy.” Granted, they’ve probably seen one American-made comedy after another that was actually inspired (or, in some cases, ripped-off) by a French farce – but that’s not something you can expect their feeble minds to accept. I mean, these are the people who think Adam Sandler is funny, after all. Had the entire nation been brought up to appreciate (I think the appropriate world used in schools is “tolerate”) foreign films from the get-go – especially that which was crafted by the French (who only invented film) – they more than likely still would have been somewhat unaware of the comedic talents of Pierre Étaix.

The reason for that is sadly simple: most of Monsieur Étaix’s moving pictures have escaped the eyes of many (domestically as well as internationally) due to a legal dispute with a distribution company for several decades. Fortunately, that all began to change in 2010, when the red tape surrounding the film canisters of Étaix’s works was cut away, and the lengthy process of restoring these buried-away gems came to pass. Now, thanks to the folks at The Criterion Collection, we can witness this fine French clown in action. And I use the word “clown” with the greatest of respect: Étaix is not the typical fellow who paints his face white and horrifies coulrophobic individuals at fairs, parades, and circuses – he is a comic. Big difference. There’s no need to run away in panic, kids.

No, instead, Étaix offers up a style of clownmanship that is similar to that of the great talents and styles of men such as Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, or Jacques Tati (the latter of whom mentored Étaix), with a heavy focus on that ever-amusing heartache so many of us encounter on a regular basis: love. The journey begins with two short films on Disc One: Rupture (1961), and Happy Anniversary (Heureux Anniversaire, 1962). The first finds a rejected lover (Étaix) having extreme difficulty in performing the most simple of tasks – a quandary that begins to grow, leading to an unexpectedly appropriate finale. The latter film centers on a still-active lover (Étaix) attempting to get home in time for dinner with his significant other. Once again, such a task is a daunting one – as the streets of Paris are madder than ever this otherwise fine day. Disc One concludes with 1962’s The Suitor (Le Soupirant), wherein an awkward young would-be astrologer named Pierre (indeed!) attempts to find a bride when his parents suggest he do so in order to get him out of the house – or at least out of the stars. Alas, he transfixes his attention on a star of another kind: a television singer named Stella (France Arnel). Meanwhile, his wild neighbor Laurence (Laurence Lignères) tries to get his attention, as does his parents’ live-in Swedish maid (Karin Vesely).

Disc Two starts with what, for my money is possibly the best out of the whole lot: 1965’s Yoyo – a film that surely helped to inspire The Artist (2011). Here, we begin with a lengthy homage to silent films with a bored, over-staffed millionaire (Étaix) in 1925 discovering both his long lost love and the son he never knew he had in a traveling circus. The young man eventually grows up to be the famous clown Yoyo (Étaix again), who attempts to restore his father’s estate to its former glory. Moving on, we have As Long As You’ve Got Your Health (Tant Qu’on a la Santé, 1966): a series of four vignettes that concentrate on the absurdities of cinema advertising, life in the city, a day in the woods, and insomnia (the latter also shows us a strong indication that Étaix could have been an effective gothic horror filmmaker had he wished to). Lastly on this disc is Feeling Good (En Pleine Forme), which was originally part of the previous feature-length film (and which was replaced by the “Insomnia” chapter for a re-release in ’71).

Disc Three only contains two features, which gives us both the zenith of Étaix’s career as well as his nadir. The Grand Amour (1969) returns us to the despondent lover angle: this time giving us a look at love among the middle-class (or, the “bourgeois,” as they were/are sometimes called in France), which includes an epic highpoint of a hallucinatory dream of our star coasting about the countryside in a motorized bed – as well as one of the most beautiful co-stars ever seen on film ever: actress Nicole Calfan as Étaix’s young secretary – who looks better with each passing day as he grows bored with his wife (played by Étaix’s real-life wife at the time, Annie Fratellini). Lastly in the entire set is the documentary-like Land of Milk and Honey (Pays de Cocagne): wherein the comedian made the unwise move of centering his camera on everyday people taking part in activities that most people would mistake for interesting. For some reason, the public (as well as his producers) objected to being forced to laugh at their own selves, and the 1971 film all-but destroyed Étaix’s career.

Fortunately, even the lowest of contemporary comedians (you hear me, Adam Sandler?) can learn several valuable lessons with Criterion’s Pierre Etaix Collection – from how to make real comedy to what not to do when you feel your own opinion of people is the same as that of the general public. Criterion’s three-disc set also includes introductions by Pierre Étaix himself, as well as a 2011 documentary about our oft-forgotten artist, and a booklet with some extensive liner notes. All of the movies in this set were remastered in 2010 by Étaix, and are shown in their original aspect ratio (mostly 1.66:1) with monaural French soundtracks. Easy-to-read (and removable) English subtitles are included.

Yes, it’s sad that we had to wait so long to be introduced to and be able to appreciate the work of this fine French comedian. I, for one, am extremely pleased to have discovered this affordable pricelessness – and this set will surely find a welcomed spot on my shelves next to the works of Buster Keaton and other fine comedians. Why, I might even go so far as to try to turn my guests onto this cinematic gold – assuming they don’t like NASCAR or Coors Light, that is.

Highly recommended.

Luigi Bastardo

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