The Return of Etaix

Who is Pierre Etaix and where has he been all your life?

This is the story of a filmmaker who was vanished, banished, skipped over. It’s as if one of those invisible cubicles mimes are always getting themselves shut in dropped from a blue sky and ensnared him. Lips moved noiselessly behind the impermeable seal, passersby passed by, until finally nobody could see him any more than they could hear him. A hole opened up in film history—a small hole, Etaix would argue, just large enough to fit him into, but a hole nonetheless, weakening the overall structure and preventing a proper view of the comedy lineage that gave rise to filmmakers as diverse as Woody Allen and Terry Gilliam and that surely influenced already established contemporaries of his like Jerry Lewis and Blake Edwards.

More prosaically, Etaix had signed his name to a distribution deal that went 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. And now, either you own them and are reading the accompanying booklet or you’re seeing this online and you’re about to own them, so impressed will you be by the praise I’m about to heap on them, even though that praise can barely touch on the delights contained in Etaix’s movies.

“When I think of a great comic like Max Linder, who influenced Charlie Chaplin, I feel like I’m just the soles of their shoes. I’m so small.”

Don’t listen to him! M. Etaix is modest, a quality that sits strangely upon a genius. But how to define this particular, contradictory genius? A smooth perfectionist specializing in the evocation of disarray, distraction, and frustration? A sentimental satirist, a loving caricaturist, a twinkly-eyed deviser of infernal machines designed to drive his protagonists, usually himself, to despair? He’s a silent clown who talks and uses intricate and stylized soundtracks. A modernist whose main satiric target is modernity. Brilliant sight gags, as astonishing as they are funny, tricks with perception, and immaculate playing and timing are wedded to a gentleness and sweetness touched with an unstated (because inexpressible?) sadness.

Pop in a disc and what do you see? Into a perfect, crisp frame steps a man who is as elegant and sharp as his own composition and who moves in rhythm with the film around him, every changing angle of his body a graphic/poetic statement. You may mistake his silhouette for another’s—but not when it moves. And movement is his art form. Even within the subgenre of visual comedy that he makes his own, he dances around as if dodging a sniper’s bead, snaking from comic to straight man, prankster to stooge. His cinema is quicksilver.

Etaix once observed that the great achievement of his mentor, Jacques Tati, was to see the world itself as comic. Why inject a clown into a contrived dramatic narrative in order to burlesque it when you could simply observe him interacting with people and objects, exposing the absurdity already inherent in them?

In his own work, Etaix married Tati’s comedy of people-watching to a very Keaton-esque interest in the mechanics of cinema, of storytelling and perception. He plays tricks on his audience and his characters, and dismantles cinematic reality without destroying it; like Chaplin’s smashed alarm clock in The Pawnshop (1916), it continues to function even in pieces. Dialogue is present but de-emphasized; his films are “soundies” rather than talkies. The picture is ascendant, the effects track composed afterward as musique concrète, ironic commentary, a pointer to draw attention to a particular movement.

In this quasi-nonverbal comedy, appearance is all, and a comedian has to work with what nature supplies. In Etaix’s case, the parts arrived slightly mismatched, resulting in subtly odd proportions that may have you adjusting the aspect ratio on your screen.

The general shape is thin—drinking-straw legs supporting a body flat like a square of paper. The legs vanish under the jacket with no clue to their connection. Slender arms depend from broad, angular shoulders like two more articulated straws; vast skeleton hands blossom from the cuffs, as if about to play a giant’s piano.

The head, a puzzled skull, hair apparently applied with a paintbrush. Those large, limpid eyes, heavy-lidded yet wide, like twin mouths blowing bubbles. The nose, unnecessarily elaborate, as if it contains all the detail scrimped on elsewhere. The heavy, sprouting brows seem the only concession to biology. The mouth, a bold, decisive incision, very occasionally widening into a gap-toothed smile that flashes back to Linder. And with a daring touch of asymmetry: one eyebrow is a straight dash of heavy charcoal, the other an arch, creating an air of surprise or dismay or skepticism.

This cross between Rod Serling and a plainclothes circus clown is, in fact, ideally constructed to perform Etaix’s brand of comedy, and it’s futile to speculate whether this is due to a supremely happy accident of nature or his own careful presentation of his form on-screen. Probably both. But the balance between the elegant and the (mildly) absurd/grotesque is central to his comic universe.

Born in Roanne in 1928, Etaix was introduced to Chaplin and Laurel & Hardy by his father, though he didn’t discover Keaton, arguably his closest screen forerunner, until later. Becoming, in quick succession, a musician, circus clown, and illustrator, Etaix moved to Paris in 1954 to work in cabaret, and began his association with Tati as an assistant and gagman on Mon oncle (1958).

The perfectionist Tati worked his crew hard, but this was invaluable training in a form of filmmaking virtually unique at the time (and now perhaps nonexistent). The collaboration not only got Etaix a toehold in the world of cinema, it introduced him to Jean-Claude Carrière, also working for Tati at the time, who would become his constant coscenarist and sometime codirector. Carrière, a screenwriter prolific almost to the point of omnipresence in European cinema, is perhaps best known for his work on Luis Buñuel’s late French films, several of which are basically interwoven sequences of surrealistic sketches and gags (but with such cunning structure!). Carrière also collaborated with Louis Malle on Viva Maria! (1965), which explores the possibilities of large-scale slapstick in the sound cinema. “Working with Tati and Etaix,” Carrière once told filmmaker Mikael Colville-Andersen, “I had learned how to observe the reality around us. I would say 60 percent of my work with Tati and Etaix was sitting at cafés observing people, contemplating, trying to find a story for every passerby and every couple. To listen to phrases and conversations, to take note of gestures, to record things that reveal something about the characters.”

Etaix’s apprenticeship with Tati is certainly of key importance, but there is a danger of misinterpreting Etaix as a kind of disciple or satellite. Though the idea of adapting silent comedy to the sound cinema was virtually a Tati invention, and Etaix did follow in this path, his comedic character is quite different.

While Tati’s Hulot is an inherently square peg in the round hole of life, Etaix tends to play bourgeois or privileged characters who want to fit in and seem well equipped to do so. The various on-screen husbands and lovers and Pierres and Yoyos he plays do their best to give society exactly what it demands but find life curiously uncooperative. Rather than being a hostile place that rejects the nonconformist, the world of Etaix seems to reject everybody, however hard they try to adjust. It’s a radical vision, without the exultation of Marxian disruption; no anarchists are needed to subvert the social order, since it’s already in a frenzied turmoil of its own making.

Etaix explored this world with a kind of skeptical innocence in three shorts and five features, made over a decade, achieving a perfection of form so rapidly that constant self-reinvention was required to avoid repetition. As soon as he mastered a mode, he moved on. The result was a trove of masterpieces. Starting here . . . 

Short Stuff: Rupture, Happy Anniversary

I met Pierre Etaix, sort of, when he attended a screening of Le grand amour (1969) at Edinburgh’s French Film Festival in 2011. I’d stumbled on a recording taped from television of the short Happy Anniversary (1962) when I was a student, and had later signed the petition to free his films from their legal limbo, so I was eager to finally see Etaix on the big screen, and in person. After enjoying his revelatory film and a charming Q&A, I hung around to see if I could get a photograph of the great man. And I found myself on the fringes of a drama: his luggage had gone missing in transit, and in it was his medication. As I hovered uselessly, I got the sense that this was like a supremely unfunny version of an Etaix scenario, in which small mishaps have gigantic consequences.

Rupture (1961), Etaix’s first short, codirected with Carrière, illustrates this principle precisely, with an escalating series of accidents conspiring to destroy the protagonist. A dapper young man, Etaix, receives a message from his lover: his photo, torn in two. Attempting to formulate a reply, he finds himself bereft of the power to interact effectively with the physical world. His pen, his writing desk, and his very apartment seem to revolt or disintegrate as he tries to use them. Finally, his chair jettisons him out the window; the room resumes its serenity.

In assembling a prolonged slapstick sequence of intensifying devastation, caused by the protagonist’s suppressed emotional tension, Etaix seems to be following in the footsteps of Preston Sturges, whose Unfaithfully Yours (1948) climaxes with a long, grotesquely repetitive struggle between a man and his furnishings. Etaix builds on this idea with his performance, which is outwardly calm and collected; the only clue to the character’s inner angst is the otherwise unexplainable hostility of his environment. This loss of physical facility embodies a nightmare for Etaix, physical actor and prestidigitator (in 1959, he employed his sleight-of-hand skills for Robert Bresson, appearing as one of the roving thieves in Pickpocket). Here, his astonishing ability to manipulate objects is inverted, so that nothing obeys his wishes or fulfills its function. The world is at war with him.

Enhancing the nightmare, Etaix exaggerates and manipulates the noises of the world for comic effect—not like in a cartoon, where all is metaphor, but in the manner of a distorting mirror. We are reminded of how funny things actually sound. And he heightens these subtly awry noises by surrounding them with silence. These daring holes in the soundtrack make us nervous: we fear our own bodies may draw unwanted attention from the rest of the audience. So when a sound comes along and a gag occurs, that tension is released as laughter.

Happy Anniversary, the follow-up film, with Carrière again codirecting, is more ambitious but also takes frustrated desire as its subject.

Etaix attempts to join his wife on their anniversary, hurrying home from work and buying wine, chocolates, and flowers as he goes, but Paris gets in the way; by the time of his arrival, dinner has been eaten and his wife has drunk herself into a stupor. Etaix elaborates on this basic idea with other characters, interweaving their mishaps with his own. In particular, the clown Georges Loriot plays a part, as he would in nearly all Etaix’s films. Etaix’s stock company—such clowns as Loriot, Claude Massot, Roger Trapp, and his own wife, Annie Fratellini—would become an essential feature of his movies, recurring in ever-changing roles, sometimes even within the same film. If his first short was a showcase for his solo performing skills, his second expanded his vision to create a distinctive comic world with its own floundering populace.

Most of the great comics face off against a hostile universe. Chaplin struggled with a repressive society of class inequality, cops, and oversize bullies. Keaton’s battle was more existential, with the very laws of physics seemingly arrayed against him. Tati got a lot of mileage out of the idea of modern (in)conveniences. With Etaix, the idea is expressed more bitterly, and his modernist Paris is the real, documentary artifact, not an idealized reconstruction on a back lot. In this recognizable setting, he stages a traffic jam advancing in the microscopic increments of a glacier, prefiguring both Fellini’s nightmare in (1963) and Godard’s carmageddon in Weekend (1967). Ever resilient, the gridlocked victims dictate letters, smoke, and clean their vehicles, tolerating the intolerable. Though Etaix takes the star part, his character is no different from the other poor commuters; he aligns himself with the rest of us citizens.

Happy Anniversary picked up the 1963 Academy Award for best short; Carrière has reported that he and Etaix didn’t even know what an Oscar was. But if they had been operating on the fringes of the mainstream film industry, they were about to plunge in all the way.

Longing: The Suitor

The Suitor (1963), Etaix’s first feature and his first film as solo director, supplies him with a more distinctive character. Pierre, the suitor, is a naive and somewhat reclusive young man who one day, rather on the spur of the moment, abandons his passion for astronomy in favor of a passion for matrimony. Like Keaton in Seven Chances (1925), he will spend the film desperately seeking a mate, but without the farcical plot contrivances to drive him on. It’s simply his new desire, and a pretext on which to hang a series of sketches that were apparently designed to work independently if the film’s producer refused to back a single, long-form movie. Despite this supposedly piecemeal construction, the film holds together beautifully.

Pierre is Etaix’s most Keaton-esque creation, in that he seems like an alien, freshly landed. (The opening title card of Keaton’s first short read, “Our hero came from nowhere. He wasn’t going anywhere. He got kicked off—somewhere.”) A stranger to human sexuality, he wants to get involved in it but lacks the communication skills.

The opening titles and first image give the false impression of a film set in space, an early example of Etaix’s comedy by misdirection, and a simple example of the kind of formal play he would display more and more in his work. The outer-space imagery fits the main character’s alienness and isolation (he lives with his parents but, like a teenager, rarely communicates with them) and is echoed by the film’s use of silence, particularly when Pierre stops up his ears so as to work undisturbed and misses the bulk of a father-to-son talk.

Pierre’s other problem is that, knowing nothing of women, he is attracted to a fantasy vision. He tries to mimic the moves of successful womanizers (Paris is thronged with them), but when he does get close to an actual female (Laurence Lignères), her ebullience appalls him.

He then falls for a singing star (France Arnell) after being bewitched by her on television. Ignoring the doting Lignères, and paying so little attention to his tea that he spreads jam on a saucer and takes a bite out of it, Pierre is smitten, and papers his room with the star’s image: a new heavenly body to replace his astronomy.

The twist that disillusions Pierre with this new obsession—the discovery that the star, Stella, has an adult son not much younger than Pierre—may seem cruel, or at least chauvinistic, to modern viewers. It can be somewhat excused, though, not just by the film’s being the product of a different age but also by the purpose the revelation serves: Pierre realizes that he knows nothing about Stella and that he has “fallen in love” with a manufactured image. When he glimpses her backstage, she’s resting her feet on the dresser, and that, too, is part of his disenchantment: goddesses don’t get sore feet.

Interwoven through Pierre’s misadventures is the story of Ilka (Karin Vesely), the Swedish au pair employed by his parents. Her gradual acquisition of the native language threads a slow fuse through the film’s loosely connected chapters and leads to a very satisfying happy ending, one that invites our warm approval not because anything resembling a relationship has really been created between the two “lovers” but because Etaix constructs a vivid sense of romantic possibility essentially out of thin air.

The huge success of The Suitor, both commercially and critically (it won the Prix Louis-Delluc for best French film of the year), must have emboldened Etaix. For his next feature, he would fragment narrative even more, play with form, and experiment with wilder and stranger gags.

Intermission One: Ten Thoughts on the Gag

1. The ideal visual gag must happen in a single shot. Cutting impairs visual comedy.
2. The action must be the right size to be seen clearly.
3. The action must have the right amount of space around it to be beautiful.
4. Even the portrayal of an accident must have a quality of grace.
5. A good cinematic gag should be something that would not work, or not be as funny, if seen on a stage or in the street.
6. Gags come from character and situation.
7. A single gag is easy(ish); a string of gags building on each other is very hard.
8. Anything can be a gag. But a gag is not just anything.
9. A gag is an absurd surprise developing with some kind of logic from a dramatic situation.
10. A gag is the purest crystal of story.

Whiteface: Yoyo

Yoyo (1965) is less easygoing, less straightforward, and was less well received by critics than Etaix’s previous films. But it’s an extraordinary creation, funny and elegant and melancholy.

The modern viewer must first discover and then get over the surface resemblance to Michel Hazanavicius’s smash hit The Artist (2011). Both films exploit twenties style, are not-quite-pure silent films, and feature a cute dog to make the hero appealing. But Etaix’s film is stranger, its story more elusive, its gags more freewheeling. There’s a mystery to it.

Structurally, Yoyo is an oddity: Etaix starts the film as a rich, indolent man, living alone amid armies of liveried footmen and flappers shipped in by the busload to entertain him, but yearning for a lost love. She turns out to be a circus artiste with a small son, apparently their child. When the Depression destroys his fortune, the man runs away to join them, and the circus.

Then the film jumps forward ten years: Etaix the rich man has vanished from the story, as has his love, and the small boy has grown into a second Etaix, Yoyo the clown. We lose two out of three main characters, in other words, and the one who is left is played by an actor previously cast as one of the others. Jumps in time can be hard to negotiate, and the recasting of characters makes audience identification difficult (cowriter Carrière would have great success with both of these strategies in his work with Buñuel). Etaix uses the very opacity of his structure to keep us intrigued, however, while the inventiveness of the film on a sequence-by-sequence basis rewards our attention. And his ending, looping back to the beginning by way of a sudden, unexplained elephant, finally grants the film an overarching theme, or vision, anyhow: life as a circle, a ring, a circus ring.

Etaix here takes a more abstract approach to comedy. The opening scenes in the rich man’s home create humor from strange sound effects echoing out of dead silence, ever-so-slightly-undercranked movements, pitch-perfect period style—and then throw in some really striking gags, many of them genuinely surreal (surrealism is certainly appropriate to the period of the film, and Yoyo’s melting alarm clock may be a nod to it). The fitful structure results in fewer sustained streams of interlocking gags but more delightful one-offs. Etaix’s experience as a graphic artist often seems peculiarly relevant, as when a bumpy road causes a woman in a car to paint her lips with the same curves as on the bumpy-road warning sign.

As a circus film, Yoyo naturally includes a little tribute to Fellini, and the final image, in particular, seems inspired by Victor Sjöström’s great Lon Chaney clown tragedy He Who Gets Slapped (1924)—or maybe it’s just that Etaix is inspired by the same sentiment, seeing the world as a circus. That idea may not be strong enough to provide the film with the cohesion it eschews in its story, but maybe it isn’t meant to. It feels as if Etaix, restlessly experimental and creative, wanted to achieve some new kind of unity, rejecting story, character, style, and theme as methods of doing this. The haunting music by Jean Paillaud, played in a thousand variations, and the opening titles, in which geometric shapes reconfigure as different circus images, hint at the kind of poetic harmony the film seeks.

Since Yoyo is a film about a clown, and in some ways an exploration of the plight of an artist who achieves success and celebrity and then wants to escape, it’s hard to resist seeing it as, if not autobiographical, at least a very personal statement. Indeed, its ending does anticipate Etaix’s own return to the circus in 1971. But luckily for us, he had a few more feature films to make yet.

Yoyo caught the eye of Jerry Lewis on a visit to Paris. He asked to meet its creator, and Henri Langlois watched in amazement as the two men, who did not share a language other than comedy, performed each other’s routines and engaged in a miraculous improvised feat of clowning. A French television crew in attendance stood idly by, failing to capture any of this, since they were there solely to interview Lewis.

This meeting led to a screen collaboration between the two clowns, but by a colossal irony too bleak even for an Etaix movie, the filmmaker whose work would spend decades caught in legal limbo made his on-screen appearance with Lewis in another movie doomed to decades in a vault, where it remains to this day, the legendary and unseen Holocaust comedy-drama The Day the Clown Cried (1972–?).

Breaking Up/Down: As Long as You’ve Got Your Health

Yoyo attracted some inexplicably harsh reviews, causing its creator considerable angst—which seems to have fed into his follow-up, As Long as You’ve Got Your Health (1966), a compendium film of four hilarious yet fraught episodes. It continues the fragmentation and experimentation of Yoyo, starring Etaix and his stock company but as different characters in each part. Stress, frustration, fatigue, and disaster dominate the stories, but they are so short and so funny that no overall feeling of oppression is passed to the viewer. Of course, comedy nearly always comes from pain, but rarely does it mine such a consistent seam of dissatisfaction and malaise.

Insomnia, which appears first but was the last short to be filmed—it replaced Feeling Good, which Etaix removed after the release and which I’ll get to later—plays with cinematic form in a way that increasingly preoccupied Etaix and, like many of his films, features him in a double role: as a sleepless man reading a horror novel while his wife snoozes contentedly beside him, and as the vampire in that novel. This allows him variety as an actor but even more as the director, playing with expressionist tropes and having fun with film conventions. The best jokes have to do with the way the reader’s experiences in the real world affect the progress of the fictional one: distractedly picking up the novel the wrong way up, he “sees” an image of the vampire upside down.

In The Movies, Pierre struggles to find a good seat in a busy cinema. The screen is barely glimpsed, and always from extremely distorting angles, but it’s apparently showing a western, as imagined by Etaix, the cacophonous soundtrack consisting solely of hooves, gunshots, and absurdly amplified birdsong. The perils of cinemagoing have a long tradition in comedy, from the snoring, guzzling patrons drowning out the movie in Sullivan’s Travels (1941) to A King in New York (1957), with its neck-cricking parody of CinemaScope. In such visions, the plight of the customer always seems heavily filtered through the eyes of the auteur, who is either saying to the cinemagoer “I feel your pain” or “Thank God I don’t have to go through this to see a movie.” This is one of the few times Etaix’s on-screen persona feels like a filmmaker rather than an everyman, even though the indignities showered upon him suggest the comedic persecution of a low-status schlemiel.

Then Etaix’s camera jumps into the screen action itself, for a series of grotesque commercials, followed by the depiction of a full-scale fantasy world in which people actually behave like they do in ads. Etaix turns up in this world as a dismayed outsider, unable to understand why his friends’ maid walks about in her underwear and intimidated by his male friend’s aggressive comparison of his wife’s pie with one of Etaix’s. In its jaundiced view of modernity, this and the following episode may seem to follow the lead of Tati’s Mon oncle, or anticipate Playtime (1967), but Tati’s gizmos and gadgets always seem lovingly imagined. Etaix’s take is less ambivalent—it’s hard to read his hurling of a hand grenade into the commercial as anything less than a revolutionary act.

The darkest vision of all appears in the film’s title episode, where modern Paris is portrayed as uninhabitable, almost apocalyptic. “Atmospheric pollution” is often mentioned in Etaix movies as a kind of catchall modern concern, but here it becomes a serious threat, as the familiar cast of clowns is menaced both by choking black exhaust fumes and by unending noise pollution from traffic and road drills.

Etaix piles together fast-cut gags illustrating the toxic nature of the modern city. The external pollution is accompanied by inward crumbling, as his players shuffle through the offices of a doctor, himself overstressed to the point of breakdown, who diagnoses mental strain in every case. His own nervous system seems contiguous with his patients’: when he taps his knee with a hammer, his patient’s legs kick.

Etaix himself appears in three sequences: struggling to negotiate his apartment, where the pneumatic drills from the street cause everything to thrum, vibrate, and shimmy out of position; visiting the doctor and awkwardly limbo dancing under the voluptuous nurse’s bosom; and attempting to take his medication in a restaurant where the confusion caused by overcrowding results in an unsuspecting patron ingesting the chemical cocktail intended for Etaix (judging by the results, he is lucky to escape).

After this purgatorial episode, the final sequence has a gentler mood, or at least a quieter tone. In Into the Woods No More, Etaix is a weekend hunter, as hopeless as Buster Keaton in Battling Butler (1926). But while Keaton strolls through meadows infested with every variety of rodent and wildfowl, observing that “there doesn’t seem to be anything to shoot,” Etaix barely sees another creature, except for three human beings—a couple of bourgeois picnickers and an elderly farmer attempting to repair a fence—whom he nearly assassinates. At one point, the sound of a cuckoo causes him to check his watch, suggesting his unsuitability to rustic life.

Like the other segments, Into the Woods No More is built on the theme of frustration, with a packed picnic hamper gradually reduced to dust as the itinerant diners struggle to transport it over rough ground in their eternal quest for a peaceful site, Etaix’s hunter unable to locate any target save for a shoe and a power line, and the farmer made to watch as his posts are once more yanked from the ground in neat sequence. Tantalus and Sisyphus would both recognize the modern world of Etaix at once.

The excised episode, Feeling Good, treads similar ground, with Etaix as a camper struggling to prepare a cup of coffee in nature, before being banished to a fenced-in campsite alarmingly akin to a concentration camp (in fact, the short anticipates Etaix’s forthcoming collaboration with Jerry Lewis on The Day the Clown Cried, particularly in a shocking gag where a man in pajamas greets his mother across the wire fence).

By cutting this episode from As Long as You’ve Got Your Health, Etaix removed the only happy ending in the bunch, leaving the anthology to transmute disenchantment into laughter. Feeling Good stands nicely by itself, however, and its liberating ending seems now to symbolize the escape of Etaix’s work from its own imprisonment.

Intermission Two: A Woman’s Face

Denise Péronne: an omnipresent figure in Etaix’s features, from her role as his mother in The Suitor through multiple appearances in As Long as You’ve Got Your Health to her cameo as a conspiratorial gossip in Le grand amour. Like Fellini, Etaix sometimes cast his actors for their faces or silhouettes, but here he obviously found a true collaborator. Imperious yet graceful, her face comes equipped with ready-pursed lips and naturally narrowed eyes, making disapproval not only her permanent expression but her very identity. Between eyes and mouth, a nose points in silent accusation. Seemingly hand drawn to play snitches and snobs, the actor has a graceful bearing, a gentleness, and a gift for nuance that means she can defy her own stereotype and appear immensely lovable. Each of her appearances in an Etaix film is like a visit from a welcome aunt. 

Story of a Love Story: Le grand amour

Le grand amour is Etaix’s last theatrical fiction feature to date, alas, but it’s a beautiful summation of his comic concerns and stylistic devices. His first film in color (Insomnia was shot afterward), it costars his then real-life wife, Annie Fratellini (who played Mado in 1960’s Zazie dans le métro), as his on-screen wife, and adventurously expands upon the playful approach to storytelling already displayed in his work.

In a way, the central joke of the film is how life becomes a story we tell ourselves, and the distortions and absurdities that result. Right from the start, Etaix illustrates his character’s thoughts as he is about to get married, and the visuals running under the voice-over often contrast with what is being consciously remembered. And when Etaix tries to replay the same simple scene several times, unable to decide whether he met his future wife inside a café or on the terrace, the waiter eventually objects to the tiresome repetition.

So, without being a film about movies, per se, it’s a film that has tremendous fun with cinematic narrative. Etaix’s character, called Pierre as usual, feels trapped in his comfortable bourgeois life, running his father-in-law’s family business, living with his wife directly above her parents’ apartment, still in the same provincial town where he grew up. When his spinster secretary is replaced by a beautiful young girl (Nicole Calfan), he finds himself tempted to stray.

The film enjoys the tightest structure of Etaix’s long-form movies, while still exploiting the freedom of comedy sketches: the action can jump forward ten years or dive back in time, enter the character’s imagination or dreams, or even show how he imagines others are seeing him. This license seems to have influenced the playfulness of Woody Allen’s storytelling in Annie Hall (1977) and elsewhere: there are gags about narrative, about metaphor, about music, about point of view. Much of the humor draws attention to the nature of filmic narrative, and story is deconstructed without being destroyed, the emotion framed in irony without losing affect.

One highlight is Pierre’s dream, in which his bed sails serenely out of his room to glide along quiet country roads, past other trundling dreamers, picking up Calfan as a hitchhiker in a baby-doll nightie. Etaix and Carrière cram in a whole dormitory of delightful variations on the idea of beds as automobiles and dreamers as travelers. Etaix has said, “I had a friend who lived near a road with very heavy traffic who told me, ‘Every night when I go to bed, I feel like I’m driving a car.’ And that idea did something to me and led to the image of the beds on the roads. Oddly enough, funny ideas always come from something real.” Whatever the inspiration, the sequence gracefully combines two qualities that rarely cohabit: the haunting and the humorous.

In maintaining sympathy for all his characters, Etaix pulls off a delicate balancing act: neither portraying Pierre as a scoundrel nor demonizing his wife, he shows how the humdrum irritations of daily life, and an unformed sense of regret at freedoms abandoned, lead Pierre to contemplate adultery, which has the potential to completely destroy his comfortable existence. As the third corner of the triangle, Calfan must be alluring and seemingly open to seduction, yet innocent enough not to seem a schemer. The character is in truth a little underwritten, but the effect is to give her added mystery. In a sense, she’s a blank onto which he’s projecting his fantasies; of all the film’s characters, she’s the one we see the least of in reality and the most of through the lens of Pierre’s fevered imaginings.

Etaix’s camera doesn’t leer, but it does put the audience into the situation, and Calfan’s fresh beauty is enticing. Etaix’s gauche attempts at playing the seducer provoke sympathetic cringes rather than scorn, and it’s interesting to see a story where we’re not wishing for the hero to succeed.

The triumph of the film is that it moves away somewhat from the silent-comedy influence without becoming more conventional. Etaix has found a new voice, which can speak of more rounded characters and more psychological problems, which can depend more on language, but which is still unique, playful, experimental, weaving his design, music, and pantomime skills and his gift for surrealism into a tender and convincing narrative.

Just Relax: Land of Milk and Honey

For his last cinema feature as director, Etaix unexpectedly moved into documentary. He was commissioned to cover the Europe 1 Podium radio tour, a road show that visited the top holiday areas of the French countryside, featuring performances by pop stars and talent competitions for the public. But rather than produce a cheerful promo film, Etaix took the opportunity to attempt to capture the state of the nation as he saw it, post-1968, with its generational divides, political apathy, and social conformity. Watching these glum holidaymakers is a bit like catching M. Hulot’s Holiday (1953) morphing into Godard’s Weekend.

Etaix’s comedy always had an observational aspect, but Land of Milk and Honey (1971) still feels like a major departure, even though the subject follows neatly from the leisure activities of As Long as You’ve Got Your Health and Feeling Good. The social critique is certainly consistent: the city dwellers, fleeing their hellish concrete environment, flock to the countryside and are penned in overpopulated campsites or cramped caravans, passively consuming blaring commercials and melting ice cream while the news headlines, ignored, shriek of coming economic austerity measures.

The title refers to an imaginary kingdom of contentment, and Etaix tells us that his film is about France and the French, but it resists boiling down to any simple message on the subject; there’s humor and sadness and affection and disappointment and horror all mixed up in it.

The opening is classic Etaix, using surreal slapstick to show the filmmaker himself literally wrestling with his footage, a tentacled mountain of celluloid that pursues him from the studio, apparently intent on devouring him. This is followed by a pompous voice-over celebrating the joys of the holiday season (but comparing caravanners to escargots), accompanied by burbling music and scenic vistas parodying the traditional travelogue; already an undercurrent of irony allows us to read the film’s meaning as directly opposite to its surface statements.

From here on, Etaix is present mainly as offscreen interviewer, listening more than speaking, and the stars of the movie are real people. Etaix’s attitude toward his characters seems ambivalent: the singers he focuses on are the loudest, worst, and most self-deluded; the interviewees seem to have been selected more for their inanity than their wisdom. The representatives of youth are disparate but don’t on the whole seem more optimistic or committed to positive change than the old guard. Near the end, particularly when it’s time to say good-bye, Etaix does seem genuinely affectionate toward his nonprofessional players, but some discomfort is generated by the film’s apparent encouragement of laughter at real people rather than fictional creations. To some extent, this is deflected when Etaix uses disembodied voices over vérité footage of other tourists, so that the satire is created by juxtaposition, but the film still flirts with unease, I think intentionally.

And then there are the bodies, old or bloated or toothless. In the poster he designed for the film, Etaix spells out the title with sausagelike body parts, and there’s a Rabelaisian attraction/repulsion to the filming of flesh here, a feeling we might call relish-vulsion or dis-gusto. The footage of eating contests is genuinely nauseating. Despite the director’s perky manner of presentation, the sense of disenchantment is palpable.

The movie is very deliberately constructed, even if it uses reality as raw material. Some of the resulting juxtapositions, such as showing a fat woman in a bathing suit as an interviewee pontificates about eroticism on the soundtrack, seem a little crude, even cruel, by Etaix’s standards, but at other times, the film assembles sequences that are not only giddy and surreal in their layering of images (old men slouching near fashion ads, for example) but also oddly poetic. Sometimes the framing contributes fantasies of its own, as in a shot composed so that a man seems to be thoughtfully strolling across the surface of the sea, or else along the bottom edge of the cinema screen itself.

The soundtrack is put together with the same care as those of Etaix’s fiction films, where usually everything was added afterward. Here, a kind of musical rhythm is created, comprising the visual track, the voices of the interviewees, and the interruptions of screaming babies and power drills (two oppressive sounds much favored by Etaix in the past), which are sometimes used to drown out the voices altogether, as if to censor certain words. The counterpoint of image, voice, and sound is intricate, dense, and unrelenting: whatever is said, there will be something to undercut it, as when the remarks about how kids enjoy camping are combined with the hysterical screams of distressed children.

At times, Etaix discovers activities or bits of behavior among the holidaymakers that could have come straight out of his comedies, but more often he creates a comic sensibility by the framing and cutting of the material. Some of these parallels are flippant, some more serious, and some land in a strange hinterland between the two . . . an imaginary paradise.

Curtain Call

In 1971, like Yoyo, Pierre Etaix ran away to the circus, developing his art in new directions with the touring company of the Cirque Pinder, while escaping the destructive pressures of the film world.

He returned to directing briefly in the eighties, for television, and has been active as a performer for filmmakers as disparate as Otar Iosseliani, Philip Kaufman, Nagisa Oshima, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, and Aki Kaurismäki. But during this time, a generation grew up knowing nothing of his greatest films, which languished unseen and rapidly decaying in the grasp of a company that claimed it intended to restore and rerelease them but lacked the funds to do so. The legal deadlock threatened to go on until both films and filmmaker perished.

So this renaissance, this liberation, is a very happy story.

“I never felt that I was an innovator in any way. I just always did what I liked to do.”

By some magnificent accident, for ten years Pierre Etaix, actor, magician, musician, circus clown, writer, and genius, was able to make a small suite of unique, enchanting, and beautiful films. It’s of course tempting to wish he had made more, particularly building on the fresh achievements of Le grand amour. But the message of that film, surely, is that sometimes we have to be content with what we’ve got—and what we’ve got is plenty.

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