A Day in the Country (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD) – Jean Renoir has long been called the cinematic successor to the French Impressionists—he is, after all, the son of Auguste Renoir, and his generosity and humanism and interest in the lives of working class folks is in the spirit of the movement. But while his style helped define French poetic realism of the 1930s, his films were also rooted in politics, class, and social commentary, both satirical (Boudu Saved from Drowning) and tragic (The Lower Depths, The Rules of the Game).
With A Day in the Country (1936), however, a short film adapted from a short story by Guy du Maupassant (a contemporary of his father), Renoir pays tribute to the French Impressionists in general and his father in particular. It’s set in 1860 at a bucolic riverside country inn on the Seine where a petit-bourgeois Paris family arrives (in a borrowed milk cart) for an escape from the city and a pair of brash men set their sights on seducing the giggly wife and the svelte, comely daughter of the easily-distracted husband.
It’s a bucolic little film with a wisp of a story that builds great emotional resonance from what appears to be a slight, meaningless dalliance. Like the Impressionists, there is great deal of life suggested behind those initial sketches, at least for some of the characters. Shots of this group having a picnic on the grass, women on swings, and couples rowing skiffs up the river, among others, evoke specific paintings of Pere Renoir while Jean’s gentle direction of his two leading actors create characters that are both familiar cultural types and unique individuals who are moved beyond all expectations by their brief encounter. It’s a portrait in the spirit of the paintings. Sylvia Bataille is especially luminous as the daughter, who is expected to marry her father’s dull-witted assistant but finds more excitement with the amorous country gentleman. Renoir himself plays the innkeeper and his lover and editor Marguerite Houlle Renoir is the waitress.
Renoir was unable to finish the film because of production delays caused by weather (it was an unseasonably rainy spring) and a prior commitment to feature film he was obligated to begin shooting, but the principle photography was mostly complete and a few additional location scenes were shot by assistant Jacques Becker (future cinema legend Luchino Visconti and photographer Henri-Cartier Bresson were also assistants on the production). The film was finally assembled a decade later by Marguerite Houlle Renoir (though they never married, she took his name) and Marinette Cadix, while Renoir was in the United States, with a couple of explanatory notes to cover city scenes that were never shot. In the simplicity of this film, they seem unnecessary.
The disc is gorgeous, mastered in 2k from a composite fine-grain 35mm print, with excellent detail and depth of image. The image is clean and vivid, which is remarkable for film of such vintage and difficult production history. Details of the production history are explained by Renoir historian Christopher Faulkner in the informative 24-minute interview featurette “The Road to A Day in the Country,” which was conducted for this disc. Also original to this disc is the video essay “Renoir at Work” by Faulkner.
In 1994, on the centenary of Renoir’s birth, outtakes from the production were assembled into an 89-minute showcase Un tournage a la campagne, which is most interesting for the insight to Renoir’s shooting methods. That rarity is also included in this set, along with an archival interview with producer Pierre Braunberger from 1979 and an introduction to the film that Renoir shot for French TV in 1962.