May 23, 2017
One of Jean Renoir’s most beloved films is one he wasn’t interested in finishing. While making A Day in the Country, Renoir was in pre-production on both The Lower Depths (1936) and Grand Illusion (1937). Once A Day in the Country ran into money problems he put it to the side, leaving it to be finished by his producer Pierre Braunberger. Shot in 1936, it wasn’t released until 1946 as a 40-minute short, whereupon it swiftly entered the pantheon. A suggestive slip of a movie, adapted from a Maupassant short story, it portrays the dueling desires of a bourgeois Parisian family and two country layabouts out for a bit of flirtatious sport. What transpires is beyond their respective imaginings, a transformative lust that lingers well beyond that afternoon under the summer sun.
Jean Renoir was eager to work again with Sylvia Bataille, who he had just directed in Le Crime de Monsieur Lange (1936). So he pitched her a number of ideas for their next collaboration. Bataille recalled, as quoted in Pascal Merigeau’s Jean Renoir: A Biography, “We’d thought about two or three screenplays before we hit upon the idea of A Day in the Country. The others were original ideas from Renoir. Then he reread Maupassant, had me read it, we talked about it, and we made the film. I liked it a lot more than the screenplays he’d offered me before.” A reluctant performer, Merigeau describes her as “extremely cultured and very exacting,” and was the driving creative force on the other side of the camera. She was separated from her husband Georges Bataille, though they remained friendly, and Bataille made a cameo in A Day in the Country as a priest alongside photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson. She would later marry the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, who is much abused in film theory classes to this day. It was, as usual for Renoir, a familial set, and was shot in Marlotte, the town Renoir had made his home for the previous fifteen years.
Renoir adapted the Maupassant tale himself, which concerns the arrival of a Parisian family to Marlotte for a weekend getaway. They are led by the blustering shop owner Monsieur Dufour (Andre Gabriello), huffing and puffing with necktie always askew. He brings his chirping wife Madame Dufour (Jane Marken), his lissome daughter Henriette (Sylvia Bataille), and his bumbling shop assistant Anatole (Paul Temps), who is being groomed to win Henriette’s hand in marriage. When they arrive at the local seafood restaurant, operated by the blustering Poulain (Renoir), they are spotted by a couple of bored lotharios, who accept both Madame Dufour and Henriette as fetching challenges. The aggressively mustachioed Rodolphe (Jacques B. Brunius) targets Henriette, while the lower key Henri agrees to flirt with Madame. But the paths of lust get twisted, and one of the riverside trysts haunts its lovers for the remainder of their years.
I had always assumed that it was intended as a feature, but survived as this fragmentary piece. But Merigeau writes it was always intended to be short of feature length. “The contract assigning the rights to the story, signed on May 15, 1936, with Editions Albin Michel on behalf of Simone de Maupassant, specified ‘a prefeature opener film no longer than 800 meters [about 29 minutes].’” They were to pay an additional fee if they went over 1,000 meters (32 minutes). Merigeau estimates that Renoir’s final script would have run 56 minutes if it had been completed – the version that exists runs a svelte 41 minutes.
The film begins with an unusual text introduction, indicating the fragmentary nature of the finished product:
Due to circumstances beyond his control, Jean Renoir was unable to finish this film. As he is currently in America, we chose to present it without modification, to respect his work and style. Two title cards were added to aid comprehension.
Shooting was slated to begin on June 27, but rains kept delaying them and racking up expenses. They ended production on July 18th, with Braunberger out of money and needing to time to find more. He secured short-term financing by August 6th, but the next day Renoir left for Paris to start casting on The Lower Depths. He left instructions for his crew (which included costume designer/prop master Luchino Visconti), but Merigeau estimates 23 shots were made without Renoir present (they were likely directed by his assistant Jacques Becker). Bataille was furious at Renoir abandoning the film, reportedly yelling at him, “You’re really despicable, a coward!” Renoir responded, “Fine, then, you won’t be appearing in The Lower Depths.” And he kept his word.
It is remarkable that in spite of this off-screen upheaval, A Day in the Country is a such a lucid, beautifully performed movie. Renoir has great fun with the Dufour family’s foibles – the bickering antics between the lumbering Monsieur and the whippet sized Anatole are comparable to Laurel and Hardy (as noted by my mother, who watched it with me last night). Rodolphe is another charming comic creation, who is introduced taking off his handlebar moustache holder (a hair net for his ‘stache), and leering exaggeratedly at Henriette out the window. Later he does a prancing faun dance around Madame Dufour, for him love is a show that he’ll perform for any audience. Henri is the reluctant player in the game, the glum romantic who Rodolphe chides for his serial monogamy. Henriette is attracted to his silence, as compared to Rodolphe’s theatrical fakery. Henriette is introduced as the poetic one in her family, talking dreamily about our connection to nature, the humanity of the bugs in the ground. In Henri’s silence she hears a kindred soul.
Their meeting is brief but fateful, and Renoir handles their encounter in shorthand, punctuated by one of the great close-ups in cinema. It closes in on Henriette and is an image of overwhelming exhaustion. Henri is not who she thought he was. Henriette is not who he thought she was. And so they are left together with a memory they will keep close to their hearts and never tell another soul.
This is the fifth part of a series covering the films of Jean Renoir, 16 of which are streaming on FilmStruck. The previous entries:
Whirlpool of Fate (1925)
La Chienne (1931)
Boudu Saved From Drowning (1932)