Friday, March 4, 2016

As Long As You've Got Your Health (1966)

Pierre Étaix, in collaboration with Jean-Claude Carrière, presents in the so-called An Entertainment in Four Acts, an uproariously funny worldview of the modern society. Although made in the 60s, "As Long As You've Got Your Health" (1966), an anthology of four comic shorts, is as relevant today, as the time it was conceived.

All four shorts are loosely related in the way they serve as a biting commentary on the excesses of modernization, consumerism, urbanization and its associated effects on human life,  albeit exaggerated to absurd proportions for comedic effect.

In the first segment "Insomnia", Étaix sits with a vampire novel in bed. The sheer ingenuity on display is extraordinary in the way a simple activity like reading a book is turned into an extended visual gag. A tiny detail like even the transparent cover of a book manages to develop into a funny idea and you are left applauding with amazement as the material that Étaix's character reads, visually manifests into what looks like a silent era vampire film.

Actions repeat, or are sometimes seen upside down, in a visual translation of his handling of the book. The story in the novel unfolds and its reader gets increasingly unsettled, especially when he starts to imagine things. The effectiveness of fiction, the craze, the captivating power of this form of art, and the way in which we literally let a story become a part of our reality is illustrated with this subtly funny and clever segment.

Next up is the visit to "The Movies", a superb, well observed episode that satirizes every minute detail that is associated with the activity of going to the cinemas. The long queues, the robotic movements, audiences least interested in the film and only interested in sleeping or chatting or making out, while the genuine ones waiting to get a glimpse of the screen struggle with their seating arrangement; all familiar aspects covered in a riotous fashion.

The segment takes a wildly surreal turn when the commercials on the screen meld with the reality of the protagonist, as he finds himself visiting an entire family that's a living, breathing, commercial with advertising products in day to day conversations, being a part of their lifestyle! This is the most unnerving segment of the lot with some urgent and restless jazz score in the background, infused to accentuate the effect of a relentless assault of sales commercials in the visual media, enslaving the audiences, and nurturing the consumerist/materialist culture prevalent in society. This is perhaps the best segment of the four.

The third episode is the title segment that shifts focus to the aspect of rapid industrialization and urbanization, and its detrimental effects on the peace and well-being of an individual. And therefore, it opens on an almost apocalyptic but hilarious note that sees an entire city trembling from the vibrations of large machines doing road repair work, as cranes, cars, and other contraptions add to the noise and air pollution. Entire structures begin to feel the tremors, indoors as well as outdoors.

The fast life and lack of peace leads to an inevitable stress for mostly all individuals including a doctor himself who becomes a bundle of nerves even in the process of prescribing medicines! And in the midst of all this is yet another media/ad campaign urging everyone to keep smiling, no matter how bad the situation in the street on a regular, chaotic city day! The crowd complies with the smiling campaign, while the chaos continues, resulting in a wickedly funny situation of conflicting reactions; and yet very much the sad reality of our existence. Aren't we all left with no choice but to smile through all the mundane rigmaroles?

The final section shifts the action to a more serene atmosphere in the country, away from the city hustle and bustle. A hunter out to get some fowl in a farm land, inadvertently becomes a catalyst troublemaker for a couple of picnickers and a farmer trying to fix a fence around his field. The comedy in this segment may seem to be a tad repetitive or borderline silly, but its essence, the transportation to the country, is the real take-home.

Despite escaping from the troubles of the city, a city-bred couple can never find any real peace of mind, no matter how far away they go, and will always carry their problems with them, even literally, in the form of an overfilled bag with unnecessary urban items, something that more or less destroys the very purpose of a quiet country outing.

Lost for many years along with other Étaix films, the restored version of "As Long as You've Got Your Health" is technically well-accomplished, and meticulously structured. Pierre Étaix's comic timing is impeccable and the visual gags are mostly great and well executed, barring some exceptions that border on the juvenile. Each segment uses a visibly distinct colour tone.

A grainier, rougher picture texture is used for the vampire episode to give it a look of the silent era, against the more polished, sharper look rendered to the present day scenario. Some finer quirks add to the humour quotient much to our amusement. For example, one cannot help but smile when characters reappear across segments, especially the couple in the theater and their numerous but failed, interrupted attempts at making out!

Add "As Long As You’ve Got Your Health" to your watch-list. It is just above an hour full of visual entertainment that's sure to tickle your funny bone. A constant smile and occasional peals of laughter guaranteed!

Score: 8/10

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