Jean Renoir directed A DAY IN THE COUNTRY in 1936, intending to make a one-hour film of Guy de Maupassant's short story, but rainy weather and conflicts with the cast caused him to abandon the project after only shooting four reels. Ten years later, the uncompleted footage was pieced
together and released, resulting in a short film that may be imperfect in structure, yet is sublimely moving and beautifully realized, nonetheless.
One Sunday in the summer of 1860, M. Dufour (Gabriello), a petite bourgeois Parisian hardware dealer, borrows a milkman's wagon and takes a trip into the country accompanied by his wife, Juliette (Jeanne Marken), his daughter, Henriette (Sylvia Bataille), his mother-in-law (Gabrielle Fontan), and
his future son-in-law, Anatole (Paul Temps). They stop at a restaurant along the river and decide to have a picnic lunch on the grass. Henri (Georges Darnoux) and Rodolphe (Jacques Borel), two young men eating at the restaurant, spot the family and decide to make advances to the mother and the
daughter. They give fishing rods to M. Dufour and Anatole, and invite Henriette and Juliette to go rowing with them. Dufour and Anatole allow the women to go, since they'll be with "real gentlemen."
Henri takes Henriette out, and Rodolphe goes with her mother in a separate boat. Henri and Henriette go ashore after hearing a nightingale sing and walk through the woods until they find it chirping in a tree. They sit down on the shore, and Henri attempts to embrace Henriette, who initially
rebuffs him, while Juliette and Rodolphe romp about in the grass, flirting and dancing. Henriette eventually gives in to Henri, and they share a passionate kiss, but an approaching storm interrupts their brief reverie.
A title states that years have passed, and Henriette is now married to Anatole, with Sundays now as sad as Mondays. One Sunday, the couple go back to the restaurant in the country. While Anatole is napping in the woods, Henriette sees Henri get out of his boat. He tells her that he often comes
here, to the spot where they once shared a kiss and that his most tender memories are of her; she replies that she thinks of him every night. Anatole wakes from his nap, and Henri runs away and hides behind a tree, crying as he watches the couple row down the river.
The visual style of A DAY IN THE COUNTRY, as well as its subject matter, recalls the paintings of Renoir's father Auguste, and other impressionists such as Monet and Degas, but there's nothing mannered or studied about it. Renoir's relaxed and naturalistic direction, the lyrical music and
delightful acting, all conjure up the mood and feeling of a bygone era of nostalgic insouciance, while Claude Renoir's superbly mobile camera--gracefully gliding down the river, or joyfully flying through the air to follow Henriette playing on a swing--captures the beauty of the countryside and
creates an intoxicating feeling of being swept away by passion. Yet for all the charm and gaiety, there is an underlying sense of sadness and melancholy, with the themes of "fun vs. responsibility" and "head vs. heart" running through the picture, as when the mother tells the daughter that she
still has feelings of love and romance, but now has to act like a grown-up. The seduction scene, where Henri and Henriette have their brief kiss, is amazingly sensual, featuring a breathtaking cut to an extreme close-up of Henriette's face as a tear runs down her cheek, and the finale, where Henri
regretfully watches Juliette row away with her buffoonish husband, is very moving. Despite missing two interior sequences, A DAY IN THE COUNTRY remains one of Jean Renoir's most exquisite films, an idyllic paean to the thrill of romance and the seductive power of nature.
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