Not until Antonioni and Godard in the ’60s would another filmmaker claim so remarkable a decade’s run as did Jean Renoir in the 1930s. One of his masterworks is Une partie de campagne (A Day in the Country), based on a Maupassant story. Perhaps the film isn’t as richly detailed or as humanistic as The Crime of Monsieur Lange (1935) or La grande illusion (1937), or as pathbreaking as La vie est à nous (1936) or La règle du jeu (1939). Nevertheless, Une partie de campagne remains Renoir’s most exquisite piece of irony. It’s light, tragic, unshakable.
Townsfolk on a country outing, a Parisian shopowner and his employee look down at the river from their rented rowboat. Carnivorous fish are below, the shopowner notes. Both men proceed to speak of Nature as something distinct from themselves; as they do, the camera lithely dips down to catch their watery reflections, thus visually implicating them in the rapacious aspect of Nature—“Nature red in tooth and claw”—that they claim no part of. To human beings, they agree, Nature stays a “closed book”; and, with gentle mockery, the camera slips back up—a book-closing gesture—to rejoin their combined portrait of mutual congratulation and complacency. The precision and irony of this scene are typical of Renoir’s expressive technique throughout the film.
Others participating in this 1860 Sunday excursion are the shopowner’s wife, their daughter—the employee is her fiancé, the height of bourgeois arrangements—and either the shopowner’s or his wife’s mother. (It doesn’t matter which. Hard of hearing, she isn’t loved more by one or the other; rather, she is tolerated equally by both.) Exactly following the Nature-is-a-closed-book male exchange, a more intimate conversation takes place between mother and daughter. Madame Dufour (Jane Marken, marvelous) and Henriette are themselves sitting on the grass—so, in visual terms, it is immediately clear that these two don’t deny their complicity in (a more benign) Nature as do their male counterparts. Indeed, Nature not only provides their ravishing setting and is the subject they discuss; it’s also something still accessible to them. But to what degree? Madame Dufour, coyly, says Nature is still partly accessible to her; for her daughter, though, Nature is achingly open, engaging fully all of the girl’s most tender sympathy. Henriette confesses such brimming feelings as are inexplicable to her. She can’t resist asking her mother if she ever felt the same way. Smiling bittersweetly for all that has been lost and what little remains, her mother warmly responds, “Sometimes I still do.” Briefly, then, Madame Dufour’s foolish mask, hiding marital disappointment, gives way to her humanity, called forth naturally by the untutored emotional honesty and openness of the now grown child of her womb. The moment is irresistible.
Another party of guests from town is visiting the country inn: two working-class young men. One bold, the other shy, they pair off with mother and daughter Dufour while Monsieur Dufour and his doltish future son-in-law fish and (mostly) nap. Off alone in the woods, Henriette and Henri, the shy boy,—even the congruence of their names suggests how much they are meant for each other,—make tremulous love; both in fact have fallen deeply in love. Nature has enboldened the two, inspired them; but, losing her virginity, Henriette is ambivalent—all the more understandably, given her mother’s revelation of only having, as an adult, a qualified relationship with Nature. Darting feverishly, Henriette’s face is trebly constrained: by Henri’s firm, determined grip; by her well-schooled will’s initial reluctance to yield to the promptings of Nature and of her own soul; and—the visual correlative to the other two—by the limits of the frames. (Pauline Kael, whose love of this film rivaled my own, compared Henriette’s face within these frames to a caged bird.) Nature adores this new, young couple. It sparkles before, on a breeze, turning dark and stormy; for the preexistent marital arrangements, bound by class considerations and family-sanctified, cannot budge. In a one-year-later coda, both their lives shattered, the boy and girl chance upon one another while each separately haunts the scene of their moment together. A scattering of words passes between them. Again they part, now for the last time.
Renoir is one with Nature here; he, too, adores Henriette (Sylvie Bataille, glorious). In the earlier images of Nature surrounding her, such as (recalling Shelley) the fluctuating weather and a chirping solitary tree bird she lifts her hand to, Renoir expresses his enormous lament over the hold of those bourgeois imperatives, of propriety and class, that (like her mother) Henriette lacks the means to contest—imperatives allowing her heart no claim in determining the course of her life. Renoir’s images “speak” his powerful emotions.
One surely must note that, framed by the most liberating air that Nature can conjure, Henriette’s early-on playing on a swing, breathtaking and exhilarating, suggests (in retrospect most poignantly) the potential for joy of hers that eventually collapses—what Nature offers and what human rules reject, deny.
Few films have had a more curious history than Une partie de campagne. Shot in 1936, the material remained unedited until after the war. For whatever reasons, although the film in fact exhausts Maupassant’s story, Renoir let stand the notion that the film’s shooting was never completed. Who knows? Perhaps in 1936 Renoir worried over the commercial prospects of a 41-minute tragicomedy. Perhaps he felt the film wasn’t sufficiently political, since that same year he was heavily at work campaigning for the election of Communist candidates. Perhaps he feared that the film failed to do adequate justice to the memory of his father, Pierre-Auguste, the great Impressionist painter to whom in its philosophy and visual aspect the film clearly is meant as an hommage. Perhaps it was some of all of these. Regardless, what he released as a “fragment” in 1946 couldn’t in fact be more complete. In the U.S. the film waited another four years for release; it appeared in the omnibus package entitled Ways of Love, which the New York Film Critics adjudged the best foreign-language film of 1950. Renoir’s Maupassant film is indeed a beauteous gem.
Along with the cast (including Renoir himself as the innkeeper), three of Renoir’s collaborators merit hosannas: his cousin Claude Renoir, for the film’s lyrical, light-sensitive black-and-white lensing; Marguerite Renoir, his companion, for her fine editing; and Joseph Kosma, for the enchanting, wistful, heart-piercing music.
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