In 1936, Jean Renoir had nearly finished filming A Day in the Country, based on a story by Guy de Maupassant — then it started to rain. Filming was disrupted, and before they could start again Renoir had to leave to work on another project. The film was virtually abandoned until, ten years later, when Renoir was working in Hollywood, his team in France used what they’d gotten all those years before and released the film with a brief introduction explaining that, though the film was not finished, they felt it appropriate to release. This week, The Criterion Collection released a beautiful new restoration of the film, a film which concerns itself with an idyll. A Day in the Country is a short burst of sunshine that perhaps ends too soon — but isn’t that the tragic beauty of an idyll?
The exploration of an idyll — with all of its implications of memory and imagination, simplicity and brevity, purity and absence — is a favorite subject of mine. I’ve addressed this many times on The Mookse and the Gripes in the past as the idea floats up in some of my favorite films and books: Peter Weir’s lusty Valentine’s Day outing in Picnic at Hanging Rock (my review here); Jacques Demy’s portrait of a love affair pushed aside by time in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (my review here); William Trevor’s heartbreaking “An Idyll in Winter” (my review here); and, in the natural tie-in to Renoir’s film, J.L. Carr’s A Month in the Country (my review here; our podcast episode here). Renoir’s film seems to me to be an exploration of an idyll, an exploration that, in and of itself, becomes an idyll.
Here we are in the Paris countryside, a perfect getaway for Monsieur Dufour, his wife, his daughter Henriette, and the bumbling Anatole, who, as it turns out, is Monsieur Dufour’s assistant at the shop as well as his future son-in-law. The group arrives in the countryside anxious to get away from Paris and do what country-folk do: fish and boat and picnic.
Meanwhile, the actual country-folk look at the family with curiosity and a mild degree of derision. In particular, we meet two young men, Rodolphe and Henri. They sit in the shop eating their lunch, looking a bit worn down:
They talk about the family and, in particular, the young Henriette. Rodolphe is the most imaginative of the two, and he hatches a plan to have some fun with Henriette. Henri sits there, practical, satisfied that he will simply help out his friend by singling out the mother. Rodolphe, recharged, opens the window to a burst of light and joy:
And why shouldn’t he be thrilled at the prospect of spending some time with the lovely Henriette, whose exuberance is underscored by Renoir’s camera work, thus drawing us into the fun as well.
The two young men help Monsieur Dufour and Anatole get some fishing poles to occupy their time and, meanwhile, take Henriette and her mother out on the river in their boats. In a shift, either because he was downplaying his interest all along or because the lively scene brought out his own desires, Henri doesn’t sit back and let Rodolphe court Henriette. No, he muscles in and wins his prize.
I won’t go into detail here. The film is short and beautiful and, if you haven’t seen it, best watched while in the mood to just go along with the flow and with no expectation about where this is all going to go.
Though, naturally, just like in real life, we get some rain:
And I’ll leave it with this ambiguous tear:
The film is a breath of fresh air and peace, tinged with sadness and intimations of mortality, a mortality where the best moments pass too quickly and may lead, in the end, to disappointment.
But not disappointment in the film. Though it is unfinished, it doesn’t feel it. Indeed, Renoir himself said the film is finished as is. With the looming question of what might have been, it’s also perfect.