Friday, November 06, 2020

A Day in the Country (1946)

Partie de campagne, France, 40 minutes
Director: Jean Renoir
Writers: Jean Renoir, Guy de Maupassant
Photography: Claude Renoir
Music: Joseph Kosma
Editors: Marinette Cadix, Marguerite Renoir
Cast: Sylvia Bataille, Georges D'Arnoux, Jane Marken, Paul Temps, Jean Renoir

Here's another one of those highly touted masterpieces of cinema with a confusing origin story and various uncertainties of provenance. It was shot in 1936, interrupted for unspecified reasons (something to do with the weather is the best I've been able to figure), and then assembled from the parts in 1946 by producer Pierre Braunberger for release in 1950. Sources like Wikipedia and IMDb treat it specifically as unfinished. Director and screenwriter Jean Renoir was working in the US in 1946 and apparently had nothing to do with it at that point, nor seemed to have any objections to its being finished or to the result. I have to say it doesn't feel particularly unfinished to me—maybe that's some happy accident of circumstances. A Day in the Country is based on a short story by Maupassant and it's true that some crucial scenes near the end are not in the film or at best are arguably undeveloped in a picture otherwise faithful to the story. But I'm not sure how much longer you could make this movie from here. A good deal of its charm is its brevity and its high-spirited freedom to dart among the characters, landing on them like butterflies and flying away again, sketching with quick sure strokes. It's the story of a middle-class Parisian shopkeeper who takes his family on a picnic outing to the French countryside on a summer day. His wife is a bit of a flirtatious goose. Their teenage daughter appears wise beyond her years. They meet a couple of men who attempt to seduce them, in a frothy lighthearted French sort of way. Later it turns out to be a moment of shared separate epiphany for the daughter and her beau of that day, one they can never return to, as the daughter by then has made a safe and conventional but likely unpassionate marriage. It's true the picture is a bit abrupt at the finish, where scenes are most felt to be missing, though it can easily be taken as 1930s decorum on sexual matters. Certainly the encounter at the very end is more ridiculously convenient than not. But Maupassant's story is also abrupt and convenient, and it's easy to lay off any complaints on him and his story. The movie thus manages to have it both ways, faithful to the defects in a way yet delivering all the pleasures of a good story well done, with pungent detail, memorable glimpses into characters at crossroads, a sense of peering in at secret lives momentarily revealed, and epiphanies arriving on the regular. I'm not always that sure myself about either Maupassant or Renoir, maybe I have some complex about French culture, but this short piece glows with charm, confidence, humanity, beauty, foolishness, and plain fun. It is itself a little picnic on a summer day.

1 comment:

  1. I'm so awed by sustained focus, or concentration, of any kind beyond our national drama right now. I know writing production schedules discredit by impression but still I long for a picnic on a summer day.