There was a brief period when I’d seen more films by the French director Pierre Etaix than by almost any other foreign director, because they were shown on UK Channel Four (i.e. the fourth of the four existing channels) in the early eighties – and in the early evening yet! I have an indelible memory of talking to one of my friends about them, which might make us sound like highbrows, but that really wasn’t it – in matters of TV viewing (as in just about everything else) you took what you could get, and because the poles of art and entertainment hadn’t yet diverged as hopelessly as they have now, it sometimes happened that you got something really good! But after that I didn’t think about Etaix again for years – and, sadly, there wouldn’t have been much point to it if I had: his films were unavailable for decades due to legal issues
It’s all become available again in the last few years though, and Criterion recently issued a boxed set of Etaix’s entire oeuvre, consisting of just five features and three shorts. If not necessarily the most culturally or aesthetically significant release of the year, it must be among the most purely appealing and pleasurable, and with one of the most peculiar underlying biographies. Etaix was born in 1928, and performed as a clown in his early years; he met Jacques Tati, and was an assistant director on his 1958 film Mon Oncle. A few years later he started making his own films – and won a short subject Oscar in 1962 for the second, Happy Anniversary. In 1971 he joined a touring circus company and never directed again, except for some TV work in the late eighties (I’m not sure if Etaix ever made a serious attempt to return to the cinema – in a recent documentary included in the Criterion release, he talks about his hope of directing again, even in his 80’s). He acted here and there though, most intriguingly in Jerry Lewis’ unseen The Day the Clown Cried; the two have been friends ever since they met in the mid-60’s.
One of the most remarkable things about viewing Etaix’s work is how he hit the ground running – from the start, the films are impeccably considered, paced and designed. Happy Anniversary cuts between a wife preparing a special dinner, and her husband (Etaix) rushing round to buy a gift and flowers before heading home, foiled at every turn by the horror of modern traffic and its inconsiderate drivers. The film crams a happy amount of chaos and property damage into its twelve minutes, but always feels entirely contained and unstrained: Etaix’s general stone face recalls Buster Keaton, while the chronicling of modern woes brings to mind most of the films Tati would make in subsequent years.
Le grand amour
But equally as astonishing is how rapidly Etaix evolved over his short career. Yoyo, probably his most formally ambitious work, starts with a highly stylized depiction of a rich man’s existence, before he loses everything and joins the circus; the film’s second half follows his son (also played by Etaix) as he builds the empire again. The film contains his most Keatonesque sequence, involving acrobatics around a moving vehicle, while reinventing itself over and over, almost beyond what you can keep track with. Yoyo might be the film you’d choose to persuade the uninitiated of the director’s immense facility, proud of its “low-comedy” origins, but in no way constrained by them.
My own favourite though is his last full-length narrative work, Le grand amour. It’s more conventional in its outline – a man preoccupied by the idea that he married too soon and went in the wrong direction, becoming obsessed with a younger woman who he fantasizes about as an opportunity for renewal. The comic invention is ceaseless, and again breathtakingly varied, but the undertone of pain and regret, and the swipe at the small-minded busybodies who provide the restrictive glue of society, is serious. Etaix plays his most fully developed character – he generally uses dialogue sparingly in his work, but Le grand amour may contain almost as much of it as all his other films put together – and comes closer than before to an adult engagement with sexuality. It’s a beautifully conceived and executed work in all respects.
As with Tati, notions of dehumanization occur quite often in Etaix’s work – a segment in the anthology film As long as you’ve got your health sets out how visiting the cinema has become a joyless battle with fellow patrons and unwelcoming infrastructure, before morphing into a reflection on how new-fangled consumer products threaten to turn household rituals into a farce; the following sequence depicts a population beset with stress, hopelessly dependent on medication (which circumstances then conspire to prevent people from adequately consuming). But Etaix’s films don’t generally feel like Tati’s: for instance, whereas you can almost go through a whole Tati film without ever getting a close-up, Etaix is more interested in showcasing his people (many of them the same core group of recurring performers) and the engineering of the situations. There’s a great sense of humanity in his work, which Le grand amour suggests might easily have developed and deepened further.
Land of Milk and Honey
Etaix’s last film Land of Milk and Honey was a radical change of direction though. He spent months traveling round, interviewing people about the state of things and capturing footage of various events, and then almost a year editing it into some kind of shape. He only appears at the start, in a sequence comically emphasizing the magnitude of this task; afterwards he’s only heard off-camera. The film doesn’t show the French in a very favourable light – he dwells mostly on how little people know, on their inane habits and practices, conveying a deep sense of fracture and uncertainty. The film isn’t mean-spirited (at least, not primarily) - it emphasizes how life is hard and getting harder, and it’s easy enough to view its subjects sympathetically, as individuals; collectively though, one wonders what kind of country can result from all this in the long run. As such, it seems prophetic now about the state of Europe, but it’s still less compelling viewing than his previous films.
“By some magnificent accident,” writes David Cairns in the booklet accompanying the Criterion set, “for ten years Pierre Etaix…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.” Well, almost plenty anyway. I wish the films might again have the prominence where kids would talk about them at school, but I guess that only ever happened because of another magnificent, short-lived accident.