[Originally published in The Weekly (Seattle)]
Bertrand Tavernier’s achingly beautiful A Sunday in the Country records one bittersweet day in the turn-of-the-century life of Monsieur Ladmiral (Louis Ducreux), a 76-year-old painter in pastoral retirement. It’s Indian summer, that lavishly spendthrift season poised at the edge of winter. Edouard and Irène, the old man’s offspring, pay him a visit. An uneventful day, really, punctuated by little pleasures, small-scale estrangements and reunions a family gathering is always sure to promote. Still, in the privileged time-warp of this particular Sunday in the country, M. Ladmiral meets himself coming and going, from playful child to played-out graybeard. Every frame of the film mirrors a life’s promises and foreclosures.
Tavernier begins with an evocative prologue, uninsistently establishing the visual and spiritual dialectic that ultimately sums up a man and his art. While the screen’s still a black background for credits, we hear childish voices singing. Once in a while, a mildly remonstrating adult interrupts, bringing their spontaneity to heel. Then, an exasperated, maternal query: “When will you stop asking so much of life, Irène?” Black screen gives way to the film’s first image, window-framed: an exquisite Monet landscape of trees banked beyond a lawn, leaves and grass shimmering in liquid light. The camera passes through the open window so that the outdoor scene seems to become accidental art, uncomposed—but still held within the film’s own painterly frame of reference.
Inside the countryhouse, an old gentleman in PJs—M. Ladmiral—opens the curtains at another window, letting in a soft wash of yellow sunlight, a mild taste of the glory we have seen outside. Singing, he putters about his bedroom. We register several very dark, very frozen paintings on the walls—antithesis to our Monet. Eventually, as he exits, the camera pulls away from the mirror which has provided us a slightly out-of-focus reflection of man, room, and a species of art. A little later, the old man, bare-chested, one pajama leg rolled up to show a shrunken white shank, confronts himself in a bathroom mirror. Placing his hand on his heart in what might be a romantic or a clinical gesture, he straightens bravely, his flaccid flesh momentarily pulled taut on his torso.
Closing on death, M. Ladmiral is acutely attuned to songs of innocence and experience, choices made and chances not taken in his long slide toward mortality. What he is, man and artist, now and in memory, is reflected from the frames of his paintings—like those darkly formal studies in his bedroom. (Sometimes, like Proust’s madeleine cookie, they propel him into not so much remembrance as recreation of things past.) Ladmiral’s butterfly daughter Irène (Sabine Azéma) is all lovely light and motion, a Renoir beauty. In her eyes, her father’s work is “tame, classical, without passion.” Indeed, Irène herself incarnates a painterly path not taken. While Ladmiral, by inclination or to please a cautious wife (“When will you stop asking so much of life?”), painted as his elders trained him to, contemporaries like Cézanne, Van Gogh, Degas, and Renoir remained unfettered children and risked seeing the world anew.
Ladmiral’s son Edouard (Michel Aumont) mirrors the old man’s failure of nerve. Once an aspiring artist, Edouard has swiftly settled into sleepy bourgeois security. His practical spouse (Genevieve Mnich), ever alert to what side her bread’s buttered on, comments ingratiatingly to her father-in-law, “Edouard is a portrait of you.” What an indictment! But Ladmiral pursues the incandescent Irene, his lost Muse, and he’s got enough of a painter’s eye for color-as-character to see that he’s sired, in the burgher-like Edouard, a “purple” son. “That’s how I should have painted,” he cries ruefully, like some Picasso manqué.
Nearly every pulsing image in A Sunday in the Country suggests the work of Ladmiral’s illustrious 19th-century colleagues. When he and Irène impulsively stop in a little open-air café cum dance floor beside a river, the colorful people and setting sensually compose themselves into purest Renoir. Gliding through a French countryside so saturated in light it seems you could spoon it off the screen, rushing in to catch the evanescent beauty of a white-clad girlchild seated in a sea of greenest grass, basking in the mellow yellow-orange spill of lamplight in a dark wood-paneled room—Tavernier’s camera fairly paints Ladmiral into a corner. Literally. For the old man has taken to painting and repainting a still life: a settee, adorned by fringed shawl and mandolin, in a corner of his atelier. Each time someone walks into this corner, disturbs his deadly composition—and Irène, of course, does so decisively—he objects strenuously: “It’s posing!” The cumulative effect is like watching a man starving to death in the midst of a banquet (or more properly in this aesthetic context, le déjeuner sur l’herbe).
A Sunday in the Country anatomizes the melancholy of a man at the end of his days and ways, but it’s replete with vitality, a uniquely French sense of humor and compassion. Louis Ducreux’s Ladmiral perfectly expresses the double vision of remembered dreams and old age’s realities. There’s loss and pain in his deeply etched face, but laugh lines and bright-eyed wonder as well. He watches Irène unearth an old painting from an attic trunk with the yearning gaze of a lover. Though neither says so, it’s clearly his, painted in his youth when he still took chances, still asked much of himself and his art. As she kneels before the canvas, Ladmiral stands behind her, looking down. His hand rests on her shoulder, and hers reaches up to clasp it. It is a moment of rare communion: father and daughter, artist and Muse, innocence and experience.
As Tavernier’s Sunday in the country comes to a close, the hot golds and oranges and yellow-greens drain out of the landscape, muting into cooler, sadder hues of blue, green. and gray. All his visitors departed, Ladmiral returns alone to his atelier, puts a new canvas on the easel, and turns it around so that it faces the “posed” couch. This old man, whom we have come to love, sits down in his faded, lifeless composition and stares at the empty, white canvas, as though praying for it to fill up with truth and beauty (as did the black screen at film’s beginning). Its whiteness mirrors his morality. Its emptiness begs to consume the banquet of color and light Tavernier has served throughout the film. The camera—our eyes—gravitates to, and through, that window which framed our first impressionist vision of A Sunday in the Country, a painting, a slice of passionate life, that M. Ladmiral might once have glimpsed—but lost.