It’s a lovely day for a picnic, but the weather is liable to turn. Partie de campagne (A Day in the Country, 1936) marks the earliest Sight & Sound entry by renowned French filmmaker Jean Renoir, and strangely enough it is a film he never actually finished. Edited together by friends after World War II, the short film follows a family of Parisians as they spend a day out in the countryside sometime in the 1860s. A pair of local men take notice of the Dufour family, and decide to make a play for the attractive daughter, Henriette (and perhaps her mother too). While the know-it-all father and Henriette’s hapless fiancé do a bit of fishing, the women go off on a boating trip with the two men. Before long, the journey down the river turns amorous, until a storm intrudes. Comical and romantic, but pained and ambiguous, Partie de campagne is a deceptive film that manages to pack a whole lot into its brief running time. Renoir would go on to make fuller, grander statements about the human condition — notably list film #4 The Rules of the Game (1939) — but his humanity (and cynicism) are on full display in this beautiful, if incomplete, teaser. (40 min.)
J. – What an engaging little film! There’s something instantly appealing about Partie de Campagne, with its sprightly comedic opening and plain but lovingly shot countryside. It was so light and silly at the outset that I was very surprised at not just how heavy and dark it gets, but how convincingly it earns that turn to the powerfully serious without feeling like you stepped into another film. But we’ll get back to all that.
I suppose what I really liked about the beginning of the film was its ability to capture the characters of the Dufour family almost instantly. The father is the ignorant know-it-all; the mother thinks she’s twenty years younger than she is; and the future son-in-law Anatole is a helpless moron who kow-tows to Mr. Dufour. To be sure, this is very one-dimensional stuff, but it’s done in a very appealing fashion that accentuates how out of place these petty bourgeois are in the country and plays up the comedy. But more importantly they serve as comparisons to Henriette (Sylvia Bataille), the young daughter on the verge of adulthood and finding her place in life. Her family members have already burrowed into their respective molds, but she is still free to choose. Partie de Campagne does a great job of catching Henriette’s vivacity and youth through super-cool shots of her standing on a moving swing, during which the camera stays at a constant distance from her face as the swing arcs back and forth. It’s wonderfully kinetic, but also manages to keep the focus firmly on Henriette’s guileless face as the background rushes and blurs.
S. – The contrast between the potential energy of Henriette compared to the very fixed paths trodden by her family members is skilfully played up. While the parents pay lip-service to the lovely surrounds you can imagine they behave in much the same way as when they are in the city. However, Henriette is truly engaged in experiencing the sensations and the beauty the outing has to offer. She is a glowing beacon out in the glorious countryside and very quickly attracts the attention of two local lads. The scene you mentioned on the swing captures her carefree spirit and is engrossing to watch. I really enjoyed how this film tells lots of small fragments of story interspersed with beautiful cinematography. There are a number of key conversations that occur, usually involving just two characters, that provide a personality sketch which invites you to flesh out the characters as the action unfolds.
J. – The swing scene was certainly engrossing to those two local lads. And they have the first of several more serious discussions in the film as they drink pastis and gripe about silly Parisians. The introduction of the Henri (George D’Arnoux) and Rodolphe (Jacques Brunius) at first appears to be very much in the vein of the lighthearted frivolity that characterizes the opening minutes of the movie. The mustachioed Rodolphe is yet another one-dimensional character, flamboyant and obsessed with women — any women. But Henri quickly turns the conversation to a more serious place, and the movie starts dropping hints that something more is going to come into play than just a romp in the fields. Henri seems lost, attached to the pleasures of youth but mournful and uncertain about adulthood and its responsibilities. But I love how Partie du Campagne, even with its unidimensional players, subverts expectations. One is fully steered into believing that Rodolphe will be the one pushing things towards romance, and indeed he does try to, but it is the more sullen Henri that ends up driving the proceedings, when I thought he was going to be the sensible stick in the mud.
S. – Henri really did turn the tables on Rodolphe and I love that you are left to wonder just what happened there. Is Henri really a deep-thinking, tortured soul who took an out of character leap of faith under the influence of the charming Henriette? Or is he a scoundrel with enough sense to keep his true intentions close to his chest unlike his guileless companion? I am very curious as to whether Renoir purposefully created the ambiguity or if it is an artefact of the film being unfinished. Intentional or serendipitous, it sets up a charged atmosphere, much as the approaching storm threatens to ruin the picnickers day. I watched the boat with Henriette and Henri glide away with mingled excitement and fear for her.
We watched this film well over a week ago and thinking back through it I can hardly believe it has such a short run time because so much seems to happen. Even though many of the characters are quite one-dimensional the film has depth to it that took me some time to realise. By leaving much of the story untold with enough tantalising threads to work with I feel as though I’ve filled in lots of the details in between. I know when I was discussing the movie with you recently, J., it became obvious to me just how many assumptions I had made and I was impressed by the trust placed in the viewer to become involved in the narrative.
J. – I imagine at least some of that ambiguity is due to the film not being finished, but then I’m not sure what wasn’t shot. Was this meant to be five minutes longer or forty minutes longer — I’m guessing its more like like the former, if only because Partie de Campagne feels quite complete as it stands.
But back to the boat. So, yeah, I like how the film foreshadows the boat trip through a conversation among the city folk during which they all (through honest ignorance or hollow bragadoccio) make it clear they have no idea how to deal with a boat. That will become particularly important at the very end of the film, but it also highlights Henriette’s predicament once she guesses Henri’s amorous intentions — she really is stuck out there all alone and wholly out of her element. The encounter between Henri and Henriette (I hadn’t noticed until just now how similar their names are — coincidence?) is wonderfully ambiguous. He presses his case for a dalliance in the woods, but relents when she asks him to turn the boat around. She rebuffs his advances, but it is hard to tell whether she is intrigued or scared or both. When they do go ashore, it is again unclear how willing a party Henriette is; she seems equal parts desiring and repulsed. I think it could be argued that Henri forces himself upon her, but I think it can also be argued that she reciprocated his desire. That kind of ambiguity I think is very intentional and not an aspect of the film being unfinished. And whatever one’s take, the tryst is very, very tense, which enables Rodolphe and the mother to really live up to the term “comic relief”. And then the storm comes in…
S. – There is an incredible intensity befitting what becomes a life altering tryst for Henriette. While the details are never furnished her later return and (accidental?) encounter with the solitary Henri leaves no doubt that she is a changed woman. Before Henriette was radiant and carefree, but it is a much darker and sombre character that confronts the brooding Henri. It seems she has followed the path intended for her having the useless Anatole in tow, who behaves more like an over-tired child than a partner. From the very brief scene of them together we get a flavour of what life has narrowed into for Henriette. As with the previous time they were alone together the final exchange between the two lovers is also steeped in ambiguity. Is Henriette’s remark that she thinks about what happened every night a venomous rebuke or a testament of the passion she experienced that is now lost to her? I prefer to think the latter but it is left open to interpretation.
Partie de Campagne is both a visually stunning and intriguing piece of cinema, truly a bittersweet experience. I am looking forward to seeing more from Renoir.
J. – That final scene is remarkable and packs a real wallop. Henriette doesn’t just have a different air about her, she seems physically transformed into a recognizable but wholly different person. I’m inclined to agree that her nearly wordless reaction to seeing Henri is based on the discrepency between a day of passion and her current life, but I like that it is never clear. Her moment in the woods with Henri years earlier was awkward, tense, and quite possibly very unwanted — but then, she returned to the spot herself. So the sadness in the eyes of both Henriette and Henri is very difficult to read completely (which is very compelling). But what is certain is that Henriette has changed. Though she may have traded the open gaiety of her youth for a sort of hemmed-in weariness, she has also become a competent woman — and it is she, and not her husband, that rows the boat toward home.