PICNIC ON THE GRASS (Jean Renoir, 1959)

Jean Renoir’s Le déjeuner sur l’herbe takes its title from Edouard Manet’s 1863 painting. It is an ironical allusion since Renoir, in the manner of his Impressionist father, Pierre-Auguste, has bathed his images in sunlit radiance. Manet’s scene is dark because deeply forested, in part to accommodate one of the picnickers, who is naked. However, part of Manet’s point is that none of the others in the party, including the men, pay her nudity the slightest attention. The point is humorously compounded by the fact that this may not be to the young woman’s liking. Rather than suffering their failure to acknowledge her, she is looking at someone in our direction who is noticing her in her natural state: presumably Manet and, of course, us. The sly humor here relates to the extraordinarily complex tone of Renoir’s film. Those who find the film philosophically thin or lacking in subtlety may be looking hard at the wrong elements, or away from more pertinent ones.
     Etienne Alexis (Paul Meurisse, wonderfully snooty, self-involved) is running for the presidency of the European Union, which, you know, would not exist until 1993. (Process that!) A dry and sterile sort himself, he wants to re-create the world, or at least Europe, in his own image. A scientist, he wants human births to come from artificial insemination as a means of dropping messy passion from the equation. A magical windstorm, though, disrupts a picnic celebrating his engagement (to a German cousin!) and provides sensuous Nénette as a substitute for his fiancée. When Nénette is naked, we do not think Manet; we think Renoir’s father’s 1892 Bather Seated on a Rock or 1905 Blonde Bather.
     Needless to say, Etienne bends to Nature and Europe will be all the better for it.

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