Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Partie de campagne

Jean Renoir apparently left Partie de campagne unfinished, but to watch the film as it exists, assembled into a 38-minute short from the footage he shot before abandoning the project, one would never guess. Based on a Guy de Maupassant story, it is a sumptuous, sensual, subtly moving film that extracts great and surprising pathos from a simple situation. The family of the bourgeois shopkeeper Dufour (André Gabriello) takes a weekend trip to the country for a picnic, a day of relaxation for the women and fishing for the men. Dufour brings along his wife (Jeanne Marken), his daughter Henriette (Syvlia Bataille), his old, deaf mother-in-law (Gabrielle Fontan), and Henriette's fiancé Anatole (Paul Temps). While there, a pair of local young men decide to seduce the women in the party, setting their sights on Sylvia and her mother, while the shopkeeper and Anatole remain oblivious, concerned only with a day of fishing.

It's a comic set-up, and Renoir plays it as such for much of the film. Anatole especially is a comic figure, an utter dunce who looks and acts like a dim-witted Stan Laurel to Dufour's blustery Oliver Hardy. Dufour is constantly lambasting his future son-in-law for his stupidity, and the young man simply cringes and whimpers and accepts the verbal beatings. He's obviously a poor match for the pretty, dignified Henriette, who's sensitive and sweet and loves the sensual pleasures of the countryside. Renoir, for his part, is clearly aligned with Henriette's wide-eyed appreciation of the world around her. Renoir's filmmaking is dazzling and intoxicating, wrapping the viewer in the sunny, warm atmosphere of a country day. As the party arrives at a small country inn and begins setting up for their picnic, Renoir cuts away from the bourgeoisie to the country folk, the innkeeper and his employees and friends, as they prepare to serve the guests. The young boatmen Henri (Georges d'Arnoux) and Rodolphe (Jacques Brunius) sit inside, eating and talking, with the more outgoing and sexually voracious Rodolphe trying to convince his friend that they should pursue a dalliance with the women among the new arrivals.

His chatter is unconvincing to Henri, who insists that his philandering days are behind him, but Rodolphe's point is made more emphatically when he throws open the window behind the two men, framing the idyllic scene outside as though it were a painting hanging on the wall. The two men in the foreground go out of focus as Renoir brilliantly frames the scene outside, a brightly lit rectangle of pure summer joy centered as a smaller frame within the film frame. Henriette and her mother swing back and forth outside, the sunlight filtering through the trees and dappling the ground with alternating spots of shadow and light. The exterior landscape is crisp and clear and invigorating in comparison to the gray fuzziness inside the inn; it's an invitation to languish in the sensual pleasures afforded by nature. Renoir's closeups of Henriette as she rides the swing are especially ravishing, as the girl smiles and laughs, her face rushing up towards the camera and towards the sky, towards the sun that beats down on her, bathing her in light.

The film meanders along in this way, lingering on scenes of beauty and peacefulness as the two young men begin their seduction against the backdrop of this natural splendor. The film is often light and funny, as the flirty, vivacious Madame Dufour instantly takes to her obvious counterpart, the predatory ladies' man Rodolphe, despite the latter's desire for the younger girl. Henriette is instead paired up with the sensitive, quiet, romantic Henri, and during a beautifully filmed boat trip, these two romances wind towards their inevitable conclusions. Henriette is especially attuned to nature, delighting in the details of life and vitality that she finds everywhere in the country. She admires a caterpillar and wonders at the richness of the tiny lives that scurry everywhere through the grass beneath her feet. Do these bugs also feel joy and sadness as people do, she wonders aloud; it is obvious that she is a girl who feels deeply and intensely, and it's hard to see what the oafish, oblivious Anatole, who virtually ignores her and wants only to go fishing, can have to offer her.

That's why, despite the film's rich humor and sensuous beauty, there's a strong undercurrent of sadness and despair running beneath its surface. Henri and Henriette spend a wonderful day on the river, as he rows her upstream towards a secluded spot where they sit together, listening to a nightingale's song, and inevitably wind up kissing amidst the reeds and tall grass. The sequence ends with a rainstorm that seems to portend the return of sadness after this brief respite of pleasure and holiday atmosphere. The wind begins to blow, shaking the trees and the reeds by the water, and the surface of the river ripples to life with tiny droplets of rain bouncing off the water, creating thousands of tiny pinprick splashes. Renoir's camera floats across the surface of the water, pulling back as though leaving this country idyll behind. This day of sunlight and celebration is over, the clouds have drifted in and the rain is falling. A title card announces that several years then pass, and that in the meantime Henriette has married Anatole.

It's possible that this sudden leap forward indicates the part of the film left unfinished, but if so the omission is only to the benefit of the film's effect. The passing over of several years of undoubted boredom and marital complacency suggests just how much was washed away by that storm, and just how fleeting the pleasure of that riverside dalliance was. After the text fills in the intervening years, Renoir returns without pause to the country river where the earlier picnic had taken place, as though no time at all had passed. The place is as beautiful as ever, and Henri still drifts along the river on his boat, but his reunion with Henriette after these missing years has a very different tone, poignant and regretful, infused with longing for what once was and might have been. It's a moving, mournful ending, cut with an undercurrent of dark humor as Henri watches his onetime lover row away, Henriette at the oars while her useless husband languishes in the boat's prow. It's the opposite of the way in which Henri once rowed her to this secluded spot to seduce her, and as he watches her row away, partially obscured by the leafy foliage overhanging the river, this last little comic touch becomes almost unbearably sad. What a wonderful, rich, warm, intelligent movie!


Anonymous said...

Yes, I assumed the title cards in the film were there to cover a few scenes that weren't shot. Otherwise the film does a pretty remarkable job of not looking like it was abandoned unfinished; it certainly doesn't feel like much is missing. Personally I think the film's a little slight, but beautifully so nonetheless.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Sylvia's brother Georges Bataille ("L'Histoire de L'oeil," "Ma Mere," "La Parte Maudit") plays a passing priest in the film.

Sylvia was married to Georges' best friend

(wait for it)

Jacques Lacan.

Her best role was in Renoir's Le Crime de M. Lange

Sam Juliano said...

"That's why, despite the film's rich humor and sensuous beauty, there's a strong undercurrent of sadness and despair running beneath its surface."

I can't express how much I love this film here, and when I saw the words on this review I jumped for joy inside. My first viewing was nearly six years ago, when I met my site colleague online and subsequently forged a lasting friendship. At that point, I had only seen all the major Renoirs (LA REGLE DU JEAU, LA GRANDE ILLUSION, LA CHIENNE, BOUDU, FRENCH CAN CAN) and had yet to discover this poetic short masterpiece that now stands among Renoir's greatest masterpieces for me. Allan sent me the BFI copy as a gift in the mail, and it's one of my most beloved possessions. Yes, as you astutely note, it is sumptuous and sensual and it yields an astounding level of pathos. The vital point as far as I am concerned is the quote from your review above. For all the humor, it's really a melancholy, elegiac piece that in a humanist sense is as profound a film as the cinema has ever produced, and it illustrates the kind of all-compassing gifts that this great artist has demonstrated through his career. But strictly as a kind of lyrical tone poem attached to a celebrated Maupassant narrative the film weds the idyllic with the dark in a wholly wrenching way. It's a film of innocence during a brief time window before the horrors of World War II, and it is brimming with life, passion and romance, with the deeper ache of disappointment.

This may well be the greatest "unfinished" film of all-time. Claude Renoir glistening black and white cinematography and Joseph Kosma's sublime score are integral to the angelic vision.

Marvelous essay as usual!

Ed Howard said...

James, I think this is far from slight. It's simple, but that's not quite the same thing. Renoir explores a lot of very deep and complex emotions through this pretty straightforward, beautifully shot little story.

David, I read about the Bataille cameo, very interesting. It seems like Renoir cultivated a bit of a party atmosphere with friends like that hanging around the set and showing up briefly in the movie.

Sam, glad to hear you're such a fan of this one, too! I like that you call it a "lyrical tone poem," because that captures the effect of this lovely film very well. It's very subtle and poetic, and it slowly accumulates its emotional power through careful observation of the characters and the natural world around them. It's a delightful and charming film that packs a surprisingly strong punch in its final minutes.

susskind said...

This is really a major work by Renoir. I find it a very cruel and bitter
portrait of the petty bourgeoisie of the epoch. (Just as he was scathing
with the high bourgeoisie/aristocracy in "La Regle du Jeu". I think Renoir
left the movie unfinished to shoot "La vie est à nous", which reflected
more his interests at the time.) It
was the time when the government of
the Front Populaire, led by Leon Blum, had just introduced for the first time payed holidays, and reduced working hours. Renoir stresses the characters somewhat ackward behavior in relating with nature and with recreation by setting some comic scenes that may seem, on the surface, tender and sympathetic but which in reality are -- as they progressively sink in -- quite bitter to watch. There seems to exist a basic discordance -- which it is masterly underlined by the mise en scene -- between what one would presume a holiday in the country side would be like in terms of spontaneity, communication and self-expression, and the self-conscious attitude that the character's behavior conveys.

As you point out, there seems to be some hope for Henriette at the
beginning, as her natural sensibility is not yet completely dominated by the
conventions of her social class, but eventually she too succumbs to convention and patterns of (un)thought of her family/social class that prevents her to live a fullfilling life.

Henri Cartier-Bresson is in the same shot as Bataille, also dressed as a

Ed Howard said...

Very interesting thoughts, Susskind. Certainly the father and the prospective son-in-law are pretty scathing bourgeois caricatures; they're made to look very foolish and used purely as objects of humor and mockery. Their engagement with nature and "the country" is very shallow, and they show up with set ideas about what a day in the country should be like and how it should be spent, determined to have a picture-perfect holiday. As you say, the tragedy of the film centers around Henriette, who has a very different sensibility and is more open to the sensual experiences offered up by the countryside - and yet after her one lovely, romantic day in the country she returns home to marry her goofy, oblivious fiancé as her family expects. I'm glad you brought up these class/convention themes in the film.