Criterion Corner: Pierre Étaix Is the Greatest Director You've Never Heard Of

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Criterion Corner is a Film.com column dedicated to the Criterion Collection. It is usually written by David Ehrlich, but – in times of need – he is honored to hand the reigns to esteemed writers like Mr. Vadim Rizov.

Detained since the '70s by more than 1,000 pages of litigation, in 2010 Pierre Étaix's five features and three shorts films were finally restored and returned to circulation. During a (still-touring) retro's march to Criterion box-set canonization, justifiable hyperbole has already redrawn the pantheon to elevate Étaix as the equal of his two most-obvious guiding influences. From Jacques Tati (for whom he served as assistant director on "Mon Oncle"), Étaix swiped a relish for conspicuously amped-up foley sounds and a skepticism –increasingly curdling into misanthropy – about the modern world. The other most-cited comparison point is Buster Keaton, the model for Étaix's generally unbroken stone-face, suppressing internal turmoil through sober self-possession.

The first two shorts — 1961's "Rupture" and 1962's "Happy Anniversary" — pit Étaix against obdurate non-human opponents: an entire room and its objects malfunctioning systematically in hostile revolt in the former, endless traffic jams and similarly unavoidable obstacles of urban living in the latter. The shorts show Étaix's proficiency with the technical craft of the silent screen clown, straightforward displays of limited, slightly over-familiar routines. In 1962's "The Suitor," the opening credits have sketches of desert planets and lonely moons, a faux-cosmic background signifying — however jokily — bigger ambitions.

These grandiose sights are the customized wallpaper to Étaix'x solitary studies. His imperious mother demands Étaix leave the room and find a mate, but his imitations of others' pick-up moves never work. Always in the wrong bar or street at the wrong time, he finds himself in charge of a previously unknown drunken neighbor who's loud and reckless in incurring champagne bills. It's Étaix's burden to be chased by her throughout the film until this cat-and-mouse dynamic scenario gives way to a second, reversed obsession as the scholar becomes fixated from afar on a breathy French pop star, tearing down his personal cosmos and re-papering his room with her image in an early, particularly virulent presentation of dysfunctional fan obsession.

1965's "Yo Yo" covers half a century, beginning with a bored, seemingly lonely millionaire's (Étaix) introduction to the unknown son that resulted from a dalliance with a circus artist. This part of the movie is wordless, but when the Great Depression kicks in, so does sound. Now impoverished, the ex-millionaire joins his wife and kid on the road, as potentially constricting silent comedy homage expands to accommodate an affectionate circus-family-on-the-road drama/tribute to a lost tradition. As the performers rush into a ring during the show, World War II begins, the footage slowing down drastically as the Nazis enter the historical picture. There's a brief comic sketch of the war, then the interrupted footage is cued up and returns to normal speed, bookending the entire historically traumatic period.

For its final, wildest act the millionaire's son grows up to be Yo Yo (Étaix, again), a famed screen legend wealthy from years of honing his craft. Running an entertainment empire is hard work, as Yo Yo simultaneously audits the wares of incompetent novelty goods salesman and conducts phone conversations, dismissing a gags man who hasn't come up with any jokes for the day but missing comic office interactions due to his businessman's myopic gaze. It climaxes with a party of ominous, Antonioni-esque opulence and numerous unpleasant people, overheard in distracting snatches; rather than stomach the suffocating company, Yo Yo exits his own gathering on the back of an elephant that's been lurking in the forest all these years, waiting to carrying him back to his comic roots. With fluid audacity and sustained experimentation, Étaix approximates the formal modes of each decade covered by the narrative, beginning with Keaton and ending with a credible version of mid-60s modernist disenchantment with the world, creating a new movie every reel.

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The 1966 anthology "As Long As You're Healthy" is bookended by two shorts documenting unsuccessful attempts to find peace in the countryside ending in failure. The first attempt is spoiled by the grafting of over-regulation and hellish modern over-population onto the no-longer-peaceful countryside. The second attempt reduces the number of players attempting to co-exist to four (still too many people to peacefully abide each other in one area, apparently). In the middle comes two assaults on urban life, beginning with a trip to an overstuffed movie theater, where the squished-together crowd is picked to the financial bone by officious ushers before being barraged by insultingly class commercials with hypertrophied emphasis sex appeal, hard pitches to viewers' class insecurity or demonstrations of the endless applications of one wonder product (an oil as suitable for cars as it is for salad dressing). This segues into a diffuse segment where the only soundtrack constant is non-stop jack-hammering, white noise driving city people to self-medicate themselves nearly to death with help from an increasingly frenzied physician. The apocalyptic misanthropy is compelling up to a certain bludgeoning point.

1969's "Le Grand Amour"'s opening credits unfold over a ballad about adultery, sung from the perspective of a presumptively forgiving wife foreseeing the inevitability of both her husband's straying from the marital bed and shame-faced return, a narrative the movie then toys with executing in full. The main societal oppressor is middlebrow complacency about both the inherent necessity and unexciting drudgery of the properly-conducted marriage. The result is a completely predictable day-to-day existence which varies more in gossipy, petty retellings than in actuality, a malicious working-off of otherwise unspent energies. (Étaix's innocuous walk to his office through the park because more salacious when seen through multiple retellings: the camera positions remain exactly the same, but the actions in the frame grow progressively unsavory and suggestive in each iteration.) The underlying despair is (minus a punches-pulled ending) strongly affecting.

Criterion's comprehensive box set also includes Étaix's "Land of Milk and Honey," a 16mm documentary from 1971. His still-uncollected filmography otherwise includes television work and filmed plays, while his official biography tells us that his books include promisingly-titled volumes like "Let's Criticise The Camera" and "You Must Call A Clown A Clown." Such esoteric delights may have to wait to arrive here, but the measure of Étaix's rediscovered work already offered is indeed the gem it was hyped to be, stylistically restless and bracingly abrasive in equal measure.

THE TRANSFERS: Given that it seemed as though these films would never be available to see at all, complaints about Criterion's HD transfers would might seem absurd and patently ungrateful. Fortunately for all of us, there are no complaints to be made. In traditional Criterion fashion, the films of Pierre Étaix look magnificent and true on Blu-ray, with the luminous monochrome sheen of "The Suitor" and "Yo Yo" being particularly pristine. Even the shorts are largely free of visual debris and unwanted artifacts.

THE EXTRA FEATURES: Each of the films is preceded by a new video introduction from Étaix (he sets up the shorts as well, but not all of them individually), who – at the age of 84 – still retains a wealth of illuminating information and perspective on his cinematic output, and his contextualizations are both candid and gracious.

The real treasure here, however, is "Pierre Etaix, Un Destine Anime," an hour-long documentary by Étaix's wife about his style and career. Featuring interviews with the likes of Jerry Lewis and writer Jean-Claude Carrière (who wrote several of Luis Buñuel's greatest films), the film is the most vital testament to Pierre Étaix that Pierre Étaix never made.

THE ARTWORK: The cover art is delightfully succinct, and the interior of Criterion's rather hefty digi-pack is draped in Étaix's personal illustrations, many of which you can see for yourself here.

THE SCORE: 9.2 / 10