In the US, the most familiar work of Pierre Etaix is probably the poster he designed (boy, dog, umbrella) for Jacques Tati’s 1958 “Mon Oncle,” a film for which Etaix also served as sketch artist and assistant director. His own films — five theatrical features and a handful of shorts — languished in legal complications for years, until they were restored and returned to circulation in 2010.
A new box set from the Criterion Collection gathers this material in convenient form, with a generously illustrated booklet that includes program notes by David Cairns. My New York Times review is here.
It’s a diverse and surprising body of work, concentrated less on the panoramic vision of Tati than on minute and meticulously executed visual gags. The influence of Buster Keaton seems particularly strong in his first two (and apparently most commercially successful) features, “The Suitor” (1962) and “Yo Yo” (1965); the 1966 anthology of shorts, “As Long as You’ve Got Your Health,” abandons the timeless, silent clown quality of the earlier work in favor of a more painful comedy of irritation and interruption set in a contemporary France that weirdly anticipates Godard’s 1967 “Two or Three Things I Know about Her” and “Weekend.” “Le Grand Amour” (1969) looks forward to Blake Edwards’s later comedies of sexual humilation, while the 1971 “Land of Milk and Honey” — the most radical and difficult to digest of Etaix’s films — is a dyspeptic documentary on a France falling back into coarse consumerism after the upheavals of ’68. Reportedly greeted with universal distaste, the film effectively ended Etaix’s career in theatrical film.
Still missing are a couple of intriguing outliers, “L’age de Monsieur est avance,” a 1987 television film that pays homage to Sacha Guitry, and “J’ecris dans l’espace,” an essay film on the development of the semaphore, produced in 1989 in an early version of the IMAX process. But there is more than enough here to establish Etaix as another of the French cinema’s grand eccentrics, and a figure who merits more thorough investigation.