Friday, April 26, 2013

DVR Diary: AS LONG AS YOU'VE GOT YOUR HEALTH (Tant qu'on a la sante, 1961-71)

Pierre Etaix's third feature hardly counts as one. It's a collection of short subjects, though for a comedian working in the classic slapstick tradition there's nothing wrong with that. Despite the prestige of feature films, it might be argued that the short subject remains the perfect form for slapstick. Chaplin and Keaton's features may be better films than their shorts, but are they funnier? Whatever your answer, suffice it to say that, especially given how little market there was for shorts by the Sixties, Etaix was within his artistic rights to throw together an anthology. This one is actually twice-thrown, Etaix having rearranged things between the initial release in 1966 and a 1971 re-release. Added for that version was Etaix's first short, the shelved 1961 effort Insomnia. He should have kept it on the shelf. It can barely be called a one-joke movie. Basically, Pierre (in color) keeps himself awake reading a vampire novel, visualizing the story in classic black and white. The vampire bits are at least competent pastiche, and Etaix has the interesting idea that a vampire, when destroyed, turns back into a bat before decomposing into dust. But there was nothing funny about the vampire scenes, not even when Etaix feebly attempts to joke them up. The most he can do is have Pierre's clumsiness alter our perspective on the story. Having put the book down, he picks it up and starts reading it upside down. So we see the story upside down until Pierre realizes his error. At another point, the camera starts trembling because Pierre's reading has frightened him. That's about it, apart from a closing gag that should not come as a surprise.

The second episode will remind you of those Warner Bros. cartoons that are just collections of sight gags about people at the movies, without really improving on them. It gets better when we learn that French movie audiences were subjected to commercials between acts on the program. Somehow Pierre finds himself trapped on screen in an apartment with a family out of the commercials, all of them fanatically talking up their wonderful new consumer products, from invisible glasses to a vaguely menacing all-purpose spray. The nightmarish aspect of Pierre's predicament gives this bit a satiric edge, and you can empathize with him when, as he finally escapes, he tosses a hand grenade into the apartment. The third episode give the anthology its name; its subject is the relentlessness of modern urban life, paradoxically illustrated by traffic jams but more dramatically demonstrated by apparently unmotivated tides of people overwhelming everything in their path. Etaix seems to have been inspired by the rampaging army of brides in Keaton's Seven Chances, but manages to give his swarm scenes a distinctive flair -- Invasion of the Body Snatchers may have been another influence.

The film in its current form concludes with the episode most thoroughly and successfully in the classical slapstick tradition. Pierre is a bumbling hunter whose blunders put a pair of bourgeois picnickers on an unintended collision course with a slow-burning groundskeeper. You can see murder simmering in the man's beady eyes as he blames the picnickers for every mishap actually caused by Pierre. Etaix gets maximum laughs out of such mundane things as fence posts and a man's shoe stuck in the mud or adrift in a stream. While this episode is the most retro in spirit it also takes advantage of modern film techniques to give old jokes a fresh look. One of the film's best shots is one of the bourgeois husband hopping on one foot and chasing his floating shoe, shot from the stream with the show bobbing in the foreground. Inevitably, Tant qu'on a la sante is a mixed bag. You'll want to throw some bits away, but the best are good enough to make the whole more worth seeing than the sum of its parts.

1 comment:

Marta Costa said...

Hello,

Do you know who is the author of the poster of Tant qu'on a la sante? I really need to know and I would be very thankful if you could answer me.

Thank you, Marta