Wednesday, November 4, 2015

A Day In the Country (1936)

Due to bad weather conditions, Jean Renoir never finished shooting A Day in the Country, a film from 1936 that he wrote and directed from a short story by Guy de Maupassant (close friend of Renoir's father, whose paintings of 19th century life amidst nature seem to have inspired his son's visual choices in the film). Yet the film's incompletion hardly matters. It's just about perfect as it is at 40 minutes.

Most of the movie is set during a single afternoon in the French countryside as a family of Parisians, led by Monsieur Dufour (Andre Gabriello), his wife, Madame Dufour (Jane Marken), daughter, Henriette (Syliva Bataille), and his assistant and future son-in-law Anatole (Paul Temps). 

As the film opens, they're arriving at a roadside restaurant, where they draw the attention of two young men, Henri (Georges D'Arnoux) and Rodolphe (Jacques Brunius). Initially the two men bicker about their arrival, predicated on the idea that wealthy city folk are outsiders whose presence in the country is like an intrusion. When they hear that the guests include a few women, their bitter feelings let up a bit, as Rodolphe, the spirited womanizer, suggests they woo them. Henri is more reserved, as despite his admittance to being an idyllic dreamer and hopeless romantic (at one point he refers to a secluded spot in the woods by the river as "his office"), he's afraid of taking on responsibilities. He's aware that courtship in this scenario implies sex, and he's literally afraid of impregnating someone. As they discuss this at a table in the restaurant, Rodolphe opens up the swinging windows, cuing soaring music as the two men get their first look at Henriette as she sways back and forth on a swing. Smitten by her beauty (and only that; Henriette is actually standing up as she swings, and they hope she'll sit down for a "better view"), both men realize that they must go a-courting, but since there are two of them, they must make a move on both the daughter and the mother. 

If there's a point to the film, it seems to be that city people and country folk alike are problematic, and that their clashing is an opportunity for comedy aplenty. Renoir doesn't take sides with either group, instead pointing out the absurdity and the stupidity of their lives to generate laughs. The film's greatest pleasures come in its fluid and logical structure (ironic in a way since it's a film largely about passion and indulgence), the way Renoir employs the comedy that comes with these city people encountering the country to propel its plot. 

He particularly stresses the stupidity of Monsieur Dufour and Anatole, with the former thinking he's experienced with the ways of country life when in fact he seems to know very little (Asked if he can swim, he retorts that of course he can, followed by, "I used to, but I've forgotten. I'm too busy now."), and the latter is but a buffoon incapable of even trying to sound like he knows anything (the joke here is that it enhances the Monsieur's own ineptitude as he uses Anatole's stupidity to instruct him in matters of life when in fact this only accentuates how little he actually knows. For example, he notes that it's getting cloudy and then licks his finger to check the wind, though he immediately puts it back down before he can check its direction-plus he's under the roof of a boat dock. He then proclaims there's a squall coming. "A squall?" Anatole asks. "Don't you know anything?! the Monsieur bellows). 

When they settle down for a picnic, Monsieur drinks too much wine and falls asleep (much to the annoyance of Madame Dufour, who, also a little tipsy-notice how she chugs her wine as if the countryside has smothered her city manners-wants to wander in the woods for some intimacy with her husband), while Anatole gets an obnoxious case of the hiccups. 

Rodolphe and Henri are watching and scheming all along, using Henriette's hat that she's left in a field and a couple fishing rods to offer the men in order to get the women to themselves. Just as important as their charm and cunning though is that Henriette and Madame Dufour seem to have at least some sort of subconscious desire to spend some time with these men. Henriette has a one-with-nature feeling about the country, which makes her perfect for Henri's dreamer mentality (note also the similarity of their names), while the Madame is already frustrated by her husband's lack of attention towards her, which would make Rodolphe's charisma irresistible.

There's an unexpected and rather melancholy conclusion to the film, and it's clear that Renoir could have used some more time to really create an interesting dichotomy between the breeziness of the main chunk of the movie and the darkness of the rest of it. But as a narrative it still wraps up without any real continuity problems, so the viewer doesn't really feel like they've been cheated out of an unfinished project. 

As the film stands it's one of the best things he ever made, with the comedic timing of a Preston Sturges movie, the lush visuals of a tone poem, and the haunting notion that dreamers and romantics can't come out on top without a little nudge in the side from reality. 

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