Even if Renoir’s A Day in the Country is barely over 40-minutes long, was unfinished and lost for 10 years before being edited for release, it is still one of the quintessential representations of 1930s French Poetic Realism. The setting out in the country and the focus on being in nature and how the characters react to their surroundings is the poetic element. This is particularly revealed through the eyes of Henri and Henriette, both hopeless romantics who are looking for something poetic to distract them. The realistic element is the way that the plot unfolds. Rather than give away the ending in this post, because I implore people to watch this accessible Renoir, I’ll just say that realism means things don’t always work out the way people want or hope for.
A Day in the Country is a joyous movie, although two different versions of joy are juxtaposed against one another. A Parisian family wants to escape from the stuffy Paris, get some oxygen, and enjoy the luscious and beautiful French countryside. The joy for Henri and Rudolphe, two scheming locals, is having a group of Parisians to take advantage, specifically the young women. They are enthralled as the youngest, Henrietta, swings gracefully on a swing.
Given the short film length, not much time is spent on character exposition, but aside from a few details, it isn’t necessary. The characters of Rudolphe and Henri are explored as they sit in the café. Rudolphe considers himself a player, and ridicules Henri for being a serious man that wants a serious relationship. “Whores bore me, society girls are even worse,” Henri says. He is a serious romantic. You can tell this not only from the words he says, but his demeanor as he says them. Romance is not a joyous topic for him, as he has yet to find someone who shares his ideals.
Much of the film’s comedy is related to the double meaning of catching fish. The patriarch, Monsieur Dufour and his future son-in-law Anatole are obsessed with bringing a fish back to Paris to fry. Meanwhile, Rudolphe and Henri hatch a plan to lure the two women away from their family for their own amusement. After the two men talk in the café about their plans to catch the ladies, the scene cuts to the other men talking about fish. These two conversations can be contrasted, even if they are on completely different subjects. Monsieur Dufour is explaining to Anatole, who isn’t the brightest bulb, about the nuances of the fish they plan to catch, specifically the difference between the chub and the pike. Anatole is lost when it comes to fishing, whereas Henri is lost with love. Rudolph and Monsieur Dufour are the self-proclaimed experts.
When the two women talk, it is a variation of the men’s conversation, only the subject isn’t about catching fish, men, or women. The younger Henriette reveals herself as a romantic and has a love of nature. She is enraptured by her surroundings, and enjoys herself, whether she is on a swing, a skiff, or just lying on the grass. As they explore the potential for riding in a boat, she leaves her hat to save their picnic spot. This gives the men their ‘bait.’ It works and the entire family warms to the two men instantly, setting their plans in motion.
The men get the attention of the women and find some common ground. They get along splendidly. Madame Dufour is outgoing, giggly, and easily plays into the charms of the men. Henriette is still an introvert, but she is excitable about having a good time in nature, especially if she has the opportunity to ride in a boat. To lure the men to agree to let go of their women, they bring fishing poles. The Dufours consider them kind gentlemen, and naively let them do as they please with their women.
Rudolphe was hoping for Henrietta, and had arranged as much with his buddy, but then Henri manipulates the situation and gets her into his skiff. He sees something in Henriette that he sees in himself, and he is not going to let his mischievous friend take advantage.
The character contrasts are distinct, but they make the film even more enjoyable down the stretch. Rudolphe and Madame Dufour are both outgoing, playful, and they have fun with the adventure of the chase. Henri and Henriette are also similar. They are demure and romantics. Henriette is swept up in excitement as they row along the Seine. Henri has his mind on something different altogether, and when she begins to figure this out, she is reticent to continue. If not for crossing paths with their counterparts, who are loudly and boisterously having a great time, things might not progress. They do, however, and if not for a chirping bird, they may not have gone further.
The last few minutes are abbreviated because the film wasn’t finished. They work as a conclusion to this short film, but if Renoir’s vision of three connected short films had come to fruition, this could have been among his masterpieces. Even at the abbreviated length, I consider this to be one of his strongest works, and the story behind the story is almost as captivating as the film itself.
This was a pivotal period in Renoir’s career. He had already become an established star director, and he had become more comfortable in his craft. In A Day in the Country , you can see him exploring techniques that would result in his finest films, like La Grande Illusion, La Bete Humaine, and Rules of the Game. He plays with deep focus photography for many scenes, such as when the men are talking in the café and a swinging Henriette is framed by the window. This technique would be mastered in later films, most notably Rules of the Game. He had become deft at exploring character contrasts, which he did so terrifically in La Grande Illusion.
A Day in the Country stands on its own as one of Renoir’s greatest achievements, but it is also evidence of a master that was progressing in his craft.
Film Rating: 9.5/10
Renior Introduction: The initial idea was to shoot a 40-minute short film with the production value and acting talent as a feature. He wanted to shoot three shorts of that length, which in sum would become a feature. This sort of omnibus feature had not been done by then, but has since.
In a weird digression, Renoir argues for plagiarism. I don’t think he means it the way we understand the term. He means using stories as templates to embellish into a different story, and that has and is regularly done today. I can only speculate that back then, people thought it took nerve to alter a story by someone as heralded as de Maupassant.
The Road to A Day in the Country: This is a piece from Jean Renoir scholar Christopher Faulkner.
1935 he was very active with the popular front, militantly active. While he was leading the popular front and making films (like The Lower Depths) in the language of the movement, he made this one that seemed out of time politically.
Part of this was his coming to terms with his father, the famous painter, whose legacy likely continued to overshadow Renoir’s directorial career. Faulkner thinks this is a resolution with the past that he would return to frequently. The area that they filmed was an area that impressionist painters had worked in the 1880s. Many shots were homages to impressionist paintings.
Rain interfered and slowed down production. It took seven weeks, only 22 days of which were dedicated to shooting. Faulkner disagrees with Renoir’s assertion that they changed script due to rain. There was evidence that they had written in rain. Nevertheless, the rain did shut down production and cost money. Jacques Becker shot some material later when Renoir was not available. 23 shots in the completed film were shot by Becker, but according to Renoir’s instructions.
Producer Pierre Braunberger was Jewish and had to leave the country when war broke out, and had to take all his belongings including the film. He edited it in his mind during his exile, but it could not be seen until 10 years later when the war ended.
Marinette Cadix and Marguerite Renoir later edited the film into what we see today.
By the time of the release, Renoir was in the USA and basically forgot the movie. He had nothing to do with the final editing of the film.
Pierre Braunberger on Jean Renoir: They had worked on a great number of Jean’s early works. He speaks reverentially of Renoir. He made A Day in the Country for Sylvia Battaille, who he was in love with.
He talks about the rain and production problems. Both Renoir and Battaille got sick of it, and they shut down the film. They had hoped to finish the film, but the war and exile changed those plans. When he was hiding on an island, he had a lot of time to think. In his solitude, he realized that he could finish the film with two titles cards. Voila.
Un Tournage a la Campagne: This is a long series (1:29) of scenes and outtakes from the production. Some of them add scenes or extend scenes included in the movie, but the majority are in sequence of what we see in the finished film. They show some of the filmmaking process, with the setting of the scene, calling action, and other background set details. They even show mistakes by the actors and/or crew. There are some sequences that are significantly longer, such as the swinging scene. What’s interesting is they had a lot more footage to make a longer film. Some of the footage is of poor quality. Some even has no sound, probably because it was going to be added in later.
One thing that is impressive about all of these outtakes is the skill of the actors. We can see take after take of them giving their all. I was mostly impressed by Battaille, who on a moment’s notice could turn on the childlike giddiness or enraptured romanticism.
Renoir appears prominently in these outtakes. You can always hear his voice in the background and he is encouraging. Even though I enjoyed the entire series (although many might find it long), I especially liked the tribute to Renoir in the end credits where they show outtakes of people saying “Here is the boss.”
Renoir at Work: Christopher Faulkner examines the outtakes of the film. This is the only set of outtakes for any Renoir film, so they are important to see how he worked.
We see how Renoir interacts with the actors, and starts the scene by using the first line of dialog and he praises the shot. This is how he became “an actor’s director.”
Some of the later scenes are after Renoir had left for The Lower Depths and Becker had taken over. We can tell that Becker followed Renoir’s instructions.
Screen Tests: These are a series of screen tests with all (or most) of the actors. The initial scenes of Henri and Henriette are mere impressions, as they quietly react to each other.
The mother, father, future son-in-law, grandmother (man in women’s clothing) are just looking at the camera and around. Even Renoir gets a screen test.
Some have expressed reservation about Criterion publishing what is essentially a film short, but there is so much extra material here that isn’t characteristic of classic film. We get spoiled by releases of recent films, such as the Wes Anderson collection, all of which have a ton of supplements. A Day in the Country has nearly the same volume of supplemental material, which is a rarity for a classic French film.
Even though this is an early release, it has such great supplements and import that it is an early contender for release of the year.
Criterion Rating: 10/10