August 22, 2017
For Jean Renoir Picnic on the Grass was both a return and a departure. It was filmed in and around the country estate of Les Collettes, his late father’s land, where he had grown up as a child. It is the perfect setting for this back-to-nature comedy in which a scientist (and hopeful presidential candidate), is lured away from the world of the mind for that of the flesh. But instead of using this return to indulge in nostalgia or reiterate the naturalistic style of his still-famous triumphs – Renoir pushes further into farce and caricature. Picnic on the Grass is a broad and joyful comedy that was inevitably compared with Rules of the Game (1939) and Grand Illusion (1937), which had been restored and re-released around the same time, and so Renoir was compared to his previous self, and found wanting. Jonas Mekas, writing in The Village Voice in 1960, had a profound experience watching Picnic on the Grass and was baffled by its failure – he wrote: “I hear the critics did not like it. Who are the critics? Critics like to talk big – poor nearsighted things! They do not see beauty even when it is there.” FilmStruck presents us with another opportunity to see this beauty, so I attempted to find it there.
Picnic on the Grass was marked by the death of Gabrielle Renard, the nanny who raised Jean Renoir and became one of his father’s models. She brought Jean to see his first film in 1897 at the Palais des Nouveauté. Biographer Pascal Merigeau relates that the screening “threw him into a panic” and that Gabrielle had to rush him outside to calm down. She was a beloved figure in his life, and he devotes many tender passages to her in his memoirs, including these memorable closing lines:
As I bid farewell to the landscape of my childhood I think of Gabrielle. Certainly it was she who influenced me most of all. To her I owe Guignol and the Theatre Montmartre. She taught me to realize that the very unreality of those entertainments was a reason for examining real life. She taught me to see the face behind the mask, and the fraud behind the flourishes. She taught me to detest the cliché. My farewell to childhood may be expressed in very few words: ‘Wait for me, Gabrielle.’
Gabrielle passed away on February 26, 1959, and Picnic on the Grass began shooting in July in Les Collettes, where they had originally formed their bond so many years before.
Renoir had been working on the script since 1958, when he registered a 32-page treatment. The story concerns Etienne Alexis (Paul Meurisse), a television-famous scientist whose main political position is mandatory artificial insemination as a way to increase intelligence in children. Despite this frightening proposition, through complete voter apathy he is likely to be the next president of Europe. That is, until he takes a fateful picnic with his equally ascetic bride-to-be/girl scout leader Marie-Charlotte (Ingrid Nordine). A satyr-like shepherd plays his flute for his goat, conjuring up a strong wind that blows past Etienne’s party and magically juices their libidos. As friends and assistants start canoodling under the trees (reminiscent of the scene in Elena and her Men  with a mass-peasant makeout session), Etienne and his new chambermaid Nénette (Catherine Rouvel) begin an extended flirtation that might bring down his entire candidacy. While his advisers continue to set-up a wedding with Marie-Charlotte, Etienne’s eyes keep roaming to Nénette, a disarmingly direct farm girl who was seeking artificial insemination because she had never found a man worth her time.
Renoir cast Catherine Rouvel after being introduced to her after a screening of Robert Flaherty’s Louisiana Story (1948). She had just turned nineteen, and Pascal Merigeau believes she reminded him of Gabrielle: “Returning to Les Collettes and his father’s house, among the olive trees, on the banks of the river, Renoir recommuned with his youth, rediscovered Gabrielle’s former features and soft curves, as well as Dedee’s, his first love, in Catherine Rouvel.” There is a resemblance, at least going by Auguste Renoir’s many portraits of Gabrielle, and Rouvel dazzles in the part, presenting Nénette as supremely self-confident in her naïveté – a completely charming creation.
Now in the twilight of his career, he was struggling to secure funding for new projects, and would end up producing Picnic on the Grass himself, necessitating a lower budget and tight shooting schedule. It was filmed over 20 days, reusing the studio and crew from The Doctor’s Horrible Experiment (1959), his TV adaptation of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde which he had completed earlier in the year. Precise blocking was drawn out with chalk on the floor, and the actors had to follow them. Renoir later regretted the restrictions the budget required, complaining that working in this way “kills something extremely important, which is the actor’s surprise at being faced with the scenery.”
But Renoir tended to rate his own features based on financial returns, and the film was essentially ignored upon release, and gave Renoir “a pathological distaste for all the processes relating to film or television.” But looking at it outside of the pressure cooker of Renoir’s box office expectations, it’s a film that lives in the zone between the ridiculous and the sublime, happy to look the fool in search of what Renoir valued in life – which according to this film is, in no particular order: lazing about the riverside, eating heartily and sex (preferably outside). Renoir is deeply discouraged by modernity, opening on a parody of the evening news – which spends more time on his pending nuptials than his grotesque plan for population control. It is prescient in depicting how news was sliding ever closer towards entertainment.
Renoir’s POV comes through most clearly in a monologue by a priest out on a walk, telling Etienne what he thinks about his technocratic capitalism.
“Tomorrow you’ll send us to the moon. And, pray tell, what will we do up there on the moon? Do you think we’ll be happier there than under the shade of our olive trees? Scientific dictatorship will be a fine mess. We built the Notre-Dame, we built Chartres. We covered the Earth with cathedrals and churches. You? You’re covering it with factories. You must admit that the smoke from our incense is less damaging to the atmosphere than your atomic radiations. It appears that men enjoy being poisoned.
But, as Renoir well knows, whether or not he disapproves of the flow of history, it will flow on anyway, so you might as well get pleasure where you can. So Etienne and Nénette find themselves in each other, and that will have to be enough.
This is the thirteenth part of a series covering the films of Jean Renoir, sixteen of which are streaming on FilmStruck. To read the previous entries, click below.