A Day in the Country (1936/1946)
Dir. Jean Renoir
Starring: Sylvia Bataille, Georges D’Arnoux,
Jane Marken, André Gabriello, Jacques Brunius, Paul Temps
Review By Greg Klymkiw
A Day in the Country, made by Jean Renoir in 1936 is a mere 40 minutes long, but it's so perfect that I'd never wish for it to be any longer than it is. This short film, or featurette (often referred to now as a mid-length feature - mostly in the area of documentary films) is a dazzlingly romantic and bittersweet love story which resonates with deep humanity and truth, as much now as it surely must have when it was unveiled almost 70+ years ago. That the film has survived and not dated in terms of its aesthetic aims is a marvel, but then again, it is Jean Renoir, after all, one of the greatest filmmakers of all time. How could it be any less?
The short dramatic film is an art unto itself and in recent years (at least two decades, in reality), it's been extremely depressing to see so many of them that serve as little more than "calling cards" for young filmmakers wanting to make a feature, or worse, to get a job directing series television. These, for me, are the most egregious misuse of the art, but the other intolerable misuse are the seemingly endless punchline pictures wherein everything is set-up to solely deliver a surprise ending, usually reducing the whole viewing experience to little more than the cinematic equivalent of a joke. The latter I'm hesitant to bring up in solely negative terms, only because, it's an approach that can work when the filmmaker is generating work of a clever, razor-sharp satirical (not spoof or parodic) nature, as in the case of something like Marv Newland's immortal Bambi Meets Godzilla.
Ah, but Renoir! A Day in the Country is not only a great film for movie-lovers (and lovers, period), but is, I think an important film to expose to young filmmakers, in addition to the sumptuous, intelligent and highly inspirational added features on the Criterion Collection Blu-Ray, because I think the whole package has value to instil, at least within the best filmmaking students (at least those who truly count) the inherent values of what it means to strive for genuine moviemaking excellence. The film is a marvel of narrative genius, features a masterly use of the medium and ultimately, is a movie that resonates because its core thematic values are inherently entrenched in the work so as to always run parallel to every tool at a filmmaker's disposal to render dramatic beats.
I'm not meaning to get all Syd Field and/or (God Forbid) Robert McKee on you, this is Renoir after all, but it's important to acknowledge what makes great films immortal and to examine the simple details of the filmmaking process which contribute to achieving a universality within the storytelling - one which is regionally and historically specific and yet, not hampered by elements which render the piece ephemeral. And, of course, it's an adaptation of a story by Guy de Maupassant, no slouch in the writing department, if you follow my drift.
Like most great work, the veneer is perfectly simple. The Dufours are a mega-petit-bourgeois family of moderately comfortable means. Monsieur Dufour (André Gabriello) owns a hardware store in Gay Paree and decides to treat the family to a pleasant sojourn outside the city for a Sunday outing. The final destination is a country inn along the Seine where they plan to enjoy nature, order a meal of fresh fish and picnic outdoors.
Monsieur Dufour proves to be a plump stuffed shirt who either can't afford or, more likely, is too cheap to own a cart, preferring to have borrowed one from his milkman. He mostly ignores and tut-tuts his seemingly frivolous, but good-hearted and good-humoured wife (Jane Marken) and worse, is far too accepting that Anatole (Paul Temps), his miserable, dopey, rail-thin assistant at the store has been betrothed to his beautiful, vivacious and intelligent daughter Henriette (Sylvia Bataille, married in real life to Georges Bataille!!! AND then Jacques Lacan!!!). The snooty Grandmother (Gabrielle Fontan) mostly holds court from her generous tuffet, exuding all the more annoying traits of the petit bourgeoisie.
Into this set-up, we've become acquainted with a pair of boatmen, fishermen and jacks-of-all-trades at the inn who offer their services to city dwellers keen to traverse the gentle waterways and visit islands in the general vicinity. Whilst the Dufour family settles outside, the men eat their own lunch from inside the inn (rural types express derision over such indulgences) and, opening the window, gaze at the bourgeois antics with requisite incredulity, but most of all, focusing their gaze upon the assembled women.
Rodolphe (Jacques Brunius, actor, director, author, critic, British broadcasting personality) is by far the randiest of the two men and so desperately wants his friend Henri (Georges D'Arnoux, assistant director, race car driver) to pair up with him in attempting to make a grand seduction, that he agrees to go after the portly Madame DuFour and leave Sylvie alone for his pal. Henri is dolefully serious and insists that genuine love is his goal and that a cheap tryst is not his slice of cheese nor glass of wine. He grudgingly agrees to go along with Rodolphe's plan as he is genuinely struck by Henriette's beauty, but also does not wish to disappoint his best friend.
We're then treated to a delightful Renoir roundelay of discourse amongst the boatmen and the family until Rodolphe's plan bears fruit and he's on a skiff with the clearly charmed Madame DuFour and Henri, as agreed in advance, with Henriette. Grandma naps whilst Monsieur DuFour and the horrid Anatole engage in a series of botched attempts to fish in the Seine.
Most of the focus is upon Henri and Henriette and we are treated to one of the loveliest, most romantic interludes in all of French cinema. The film eventually flashes forward to a future juncture in the lives of the characters and here, Renoir delivers a one-two punch of sheer sorrow and regret, inspiring yet another superlative - one of the most profoundly moving sequences in all of French cinema.
Renoir, of course, was wise to have adapted de Maupassant's great story to the screen. Its framework and characters are not only film worthy, but perfect material for the director of such masterworks as The Rules of the Game and Grand Illusion and the rest of his vital dramatic examinations of class structure and honour. He brings incredible economy to cinematically introducing the world of the film and its characters. Most importantly are his visual perspectives upon the natural world and its relationship to the characters and by extension, to all of humanity. His subtly effective ways of always keeping the focus in the story twixt Henriette and Henri is so dazzling, its sheer genius can move especially acute viewers to tears, especially the focus upon Henriette, including the now iconographic sequence of the screen beauty on a swing.
Renoir also displayed his natural gifts as a filmmaker in terms of dealing with exigencies of production. The story required, nay, demanded clear skies and sun, but alas the weather in the area chosen for shooting (the Seine would, in 1936, have been far too populated and industrialized to tell this period tale) was stricken with an utterly anomalous series of rain and wind storms. Given that there are only two very brief scenes indoors, Renoir was faced with the decision of incorporating the weather into his story and it's astonishing how well it works, adding a fresh layer neither he, nor de Maupassant, could have imagined. Imagine, however, Renoir did and he renders it exquisitely.
Another fascinating aspect to the making of this stunning short drama is that some of the weather delays (there were days they absolutely could not shoot) is that Renoir had to leave the project before it was over. No matter. He planned his shots down to the most minute detail anyway, so that his trusty assistant director Jacques Becker (who would go on to be one of France's greatest directors, easily on a par with Renoir and Bresson) could continue in his absence. (I've always loved the fact that assistant directors in France are not cattle herders and/or pencil pushers as they are in North America - they're integral to artistic vision beyond mere mechanics.)
Further to the odd history of the film is that Renoir had an extended stint in Hollywood during the war, so that he was unable to completely finish and release A Day in the Country until 10 years later. It's been said this delay caused Henriette Bataille to lose a shot at stardom, but in actuality, production in France during the war years had changed drastically, plus she was also married at the time to the clearly insane, albeit brilliant Georges Bataille (no cakewalk, I assure you) and she did indeed gain considerable acclaim for her acting with screenwriter Jacques Prevert's acclaimed theatre company October and even won one of France's highest honours, the Suzanne-Bianchetti Award, bestowed only upon its most promising actresses (recent winners include Audrey Tatou, Isabelle Adjani and Isabelle Huppert, as well as Quebec's Genevieve Bujold).
A Day in the Country did indeed have a strange early life, but it now lives for all of us and will continue to do so for future generations.
THE FILM CORNER RATING: ***** 5 Stars
A Day in the Country is available on Blu-Ray from the Criterion Collection. In addition to a gorgeous 2K digital restoration, with an uncompressed mono soundtrack, a brilliant essay by the late Gilberto Perez and an all new Engish subtitle translation, the value of this release is huge for both Renoir enthusiasts and film fans, but the pedagogical value of the extras is of the highest level and includes a great 1962 introduction by Renoir, an interview with Renoir scholar Christopher Faulkner about the film’s production, a video essay by Faulkner on Renoir’s methods, an 89-minute compilation of valuable, eye-opening outtakes, screen tests and a 1979 interview with producer Pierre Braunberger. Please don't bother with getting this via iTunes or Hulu. This movie is worth owning in all its glory - to watch, study, fondle, fetishize and cherish.