The first five tags in the keywords section of Land of Milk and Honey's IMDB section are "marriage," "transvestite," "comic relief," "hippie," and "brass band." That seems about right. Though there is much more to the film than those handful of descriptors, they do get at the scattered nature of the last film from Pierre Étaix's initial run as a director. I just wish Land of Milk and Honey had a little more of the comic relief. I'd have easily given up a few members of the brass band.
Land of Milk and Honey is an absolute departure from Étaix's narrative cinema. The 1971 documentary was made in the wake of the political and social upheaval that rocked France in May of 1968. The footage that the filmmaker gathered after these events took him the next couple of years to assemble, a plight jokingly referred to in the movie's opening skit. It's one of only two times that Étaix appears in front of the camera, and it's a bit misleading as an intro. The entirely staged segment shows Étaix in discussion with himself, buried in a self-replicating pile of celluloid. We won't see the star again until the very end of the film, when he amusingly asks his random interview subjects if they've ever heard of Pierre Étaix. Many haven't, and the ones that do definitely have an opinion about what Étaix considers humor. The movie closes with Étaix taking a bow, having just performed a song and dance number in disguise. He exits the stage, and effectively exits cinema.
What takes place between these two bookends is a sociological experiment. Over the summer of 1968, Étaix went to rural vacation spots, filming carnivals and festivals, and interviewing people he met there about different topics relevant to the times. They range from eroticism and advertising to the moon landing and famine. Land of Milk and Honey's basic thesis is that France is no paradise, and the perceptions of its unity and prosperity are false. Étaix sets out to expose how little was really affected during the protests, juxtaposing people's dissections of serious topics with images of low-rent parades, cheese-eating contests, and other bizarre vacation rituals. Opinions about sexy images are played over decidedly unsexy shots of people lounging on the beach in ill-fitting bathing suits. An extended portion of the film is spent filming a singing competition where amateurs get up and perform for other travelers. Any sense of community is undermined by the brutal catcalling that drowns out some of these performances, many of which are of protest songs. Meaning disappears in the gulf between belief and action.
The agitprop technique that Étaix uses for Land of Milk and Honey is very much of its time. His collage tactics are like the middle ground between the heavy-duty screeds of Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin and Dusan Makavejev's WR: Mysteries of the Organism [review]. Too bad "being of its time" also means Land of Milk and Honey is somewhat dated. I found much of what I was seeing to be too specific to the era and locale to be relatable, a problem that isn't helped by the fact that Étaix belabors every topic past the point of exhaustion before moving on to the next one. Still, a few of the subjects are still relevant, particularly given recent economic troubles around the world, and the footage of average Frenchmen on summer holiday has its amusements, serving as a curious snapshot of a time and place that otherwise might not have been preserved.
Land of Milk and Honey plays today, April 13, at 5pm and 9pm, as part of the NW Film Center's Pierre Étaix retrospective. View the full schedule here.