November 19, 2013 § Leave a comment

Witness the range of a cinematic polyglot in As Long As You’ve Got Your Health, a compendium of four restored short films directed by the actor and filmmaker Pierre Etaix. Etaix’s films, lost for so many years to a tangled distribution arrangement, resurfaced in 2010 with several features and shorts now available through the Criterion Collection. As Long… is the odd duck, running a little more than an hour and covering several different styles and targets in its humor.

The very first, “Insomnies”, signals that this filmmaker possesses rather different visual gifts than his most obvious comedic influences, Jacques Tati and Buster Keaton (whom Etaix, perpetually beleaguered and resigned to the hostility of the modern world, resembles more than he does Tati). Its very concept sets up Etaix to flex his muscles as a director, designed to invoke laughs more through juxtapositions of editing than through physical comedy. Etaix’s character, unable to rest his eyes, switches the light on in bed and reads a vampire novel, which gives him the heebie-jeebies but eventually allows him to nod off once the villain meets his end. Instead of simply having the Etaix character muck about in a horror world, though, he uses this opportunity to depict a vividly dreamlike fantasy with some truly memorable shots.

Etaix never made anything approaching a picture like those of F.W. Murnau or Carl Dreyer, whose famous vampire films receive explicit reference here, but he does produce images to match, like the foreboding emergence of the warlock’s coffin from a field of deep black in a crane shot that evokes the dreamer’s weightlessness.

One could extrapolate only from “Insomnies” and the sketch which follows it, “Le cinematographe”, that the comedian was a voracious cinephile. “Le cinematographe” boats an acrid depiction of the movie theater as a frustrating intersection of the failures of modern culture, a place in which filmgoers are corralled so they can nap, embrace, buy snacks, move about, wave flashlights, and do just about anything but enjoy a movie. The well-lit cinema in which Etaix finds himself contains numerous seats from which it seems impossible to even comprehend the screen, blocked by support beams, railings, or seated too close to view the image except at a distorting angle.

Via another of Etaix’s moments of pure cinema, though, he’s a hop, skip, and a jump away from the world of commercials that intercut the Western shorts he’s there to see. The film makes its jump from the physical, near-silent scenario of Etaix trying to find a good seat in the theater to the surrealist parody of advertising by an ellipsis of editing, yet another instance of the director showing his uncommon dexterity between not merely genres but accepted forms and movements of filmmaking.

Eraix is, however, not one to pass up a good bit of pantomime when the opportunity presents itself, and so the land of commercialism becomes yet another scenario for his character to embarrass himself and try to smooth over the error. Here he accomplishes the bit, again, through editing: by synchronizing the sounds of breaking glass to create the pair of “invisible glasses” presented to him by the man of the future, which Etaix promptly sits on.

The very next short, which shares its name with the collection’s title, demonstrates that the filmmaker isn’t just concerned with his work as star vehicles for himself. His depiction of a toxic Paris in which medications are swapped and routine construction work constitutes a total disruption of the modern world (pneumatic drills on the concrete outside cause Etaix’s delicately arranged home to collapse on itself and loosens the hands on an enormous clocktower) has a freer structure to it than his other shorts, which clearly follow one character and one line of motivation. Here the film branches out to pursue the troubles of numerous tertiary characters, in a sort of acid jazz take on the broad canvas and deep focus of Tati’s Playtime.

Having showed his range considerably, the closing chapter of the anthology quiets down for a simple sketch that shows Etaix’s bumbling modern man attempting to get back to his roots for a day of hunting in the countryside. The gags mostly revolve around a barbed-wire fence which Etaix, a couple on a picnic, and an old farmer attempt alternately to dismantle, slip through, and reconstruct, to the mutual frustration of all. Here the Etaix character disappears for long stretches to focus on the other characters, in a nearly silent exploration of their inability to simply sit and relax in nature. I find the final shot rather telling, with the characters breaking the fourth wall to line up on a wooden bridge over a stream and take a bow, as the curtains from the opening descend before them to signal the end of the picture. It’s yet another of the great comedian’s external devices, placed for maximum effect: the intrusion of artifice on the natural world, and as the film ends, something seems to have been lost for good. – Brendan


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You are currently reading Brendan’s Log: AS LONG AS YOU’VE GOT YOUR HEALTH (1966) at The Bad & The Beautiful.


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