Directors are most often, if not always, remembered and evaluated chiefly for their feature-length work. Very few of them manage to create shorts that can stand shoulder to shoulder with their features. Most famously, Buster Keaton made Sherlock Jr., Luis Buñuel Un Chien Andalou, Chris Marker La Jetée, and Alain Resnais Nuit et brouillard and Toute la mémoire du monde. Personally, I do not place more value on features than on shorts simply because of their lengths. For such practice does not apply to literature or music. There’s no reason “Notes from Underground” should be devalued next to “Crime and Punishment” nor Beethoven’s Middle Quartets next to his late symphonies just because the latter are longer and grander. However, it is an undeniable trend in our film culture that a director’s shorts, no matter how wonderful they may be, are more or less seen as ‘sketches’ or ‘preludes’ to something greater.
A short film, therefore, has to prove itself a great deal before it’s taken as seriously as a feature. In this sense, Jean Renoir’s short film A Day in the Country (Partie de campagne) is a case in point. Some are willing to go ultra hyperbolic and claim it his supreme achievement, but unless some sort of copernican revolution shakes film criticism upside down, Renoir’s filmography will always be represented by La Règle du jeu, La Grande illusion, and The River. Nevertheless, A Day in the Country certainly deserves to be mentioned alongside these three crown jewels of cinema, and that is no easy feat. I’ll put it like this—forty minutes was all Renoir needed to reach the pinnacle of his talents.
A Day in the Country is an interesting as well as difficult topic to be discussed for a number of reasons. It is, foremost, an unfinished project. Renoir did not assemble the finished version, and some of the shots that made it to the final cut were in fact executed without him (it’s worth noting that Jacques Becker who served as an assistant director is responsible for those said shots.). What was initially planned as a brief 10-day shoot was stretched over almost 6 weeks due to bad weather. The cost for this lighthearted, pastoral drama mounted very quickly, and the vastly delayed shooting schedule resulted in strained relationships among the crew members and the actors. Renoir who was at the time also committed to a feature-length project, which would later turn out to be excellent The Lower Depths, practically walked out on A Day in the Country. As a result, the producer Pierre Braunberger was forced to shut down the production. What is available today is an assembly of best footages in accordance with the chronology indicated in the shooting scripts plus two inter titles that are placed to enhance the coherence of the film’s storyline—this was done by Braunberger after the end of the Second World War, and without Renoir’s knowledge.
Then, the question arises: is A Day in the Country yet another one of those mega tragedies of cinema like Greed, Ivan the Terrible Part III and The Magnificent Ambersons? The answer is a bit complicated. Of course, the film was assembled, and few shots were produced without Renoir, but his creative input and style were preserved, as the opening credit indicates. As for those who lament that this is a great ‘unfinished’ short that could have been developed into a feature-length masterpiece, the master himself confirmed that the film, from its very conception, was meant to be around 40 minutes long. In short, A Day in the Country may not conform to la política de autores in the strictest sense, yet it is undeniably a Renoir film that is reasonably faithful to his original vision.
It is rather telling that Renoir decided to adopt “A Country Excursion” by Guy de Maupassant, a friend of his father Auguste Renoir, into film. This particular short story follows a petit bourgeois family from Paris on their country outing and two local young men who seek to spark sexual encounters with the two women from the family. Auguste Renoir is, of course, known for his vibrant pastoral landscapes, and the look of A Day in the Country is without doubt reminiscent of of his impressionist paintings. If the impressionistic visual style in the film represents the white of its monochrome photography, the story provided by Maupassant represents the black. Like the nimbus clouds that constantly threaten to spoil the family vacation, Maupassant’s bleak view of the world hangs in the background throughout the film, and later almost completely overshadows. Jean Renoir’s own aesthetic trademarks are also present in the film, of course. His intensely warm look at his subjects here is no less humanist than those in La Règle du jeu and The River; his usual penchant for long takes and doorway/windowpane shots is highly ostensible.
It is quite astonishing how Renoir manages to seamlessly merge in A Day in the Country the light of his father and the dark of Maupassant, thereby creating a startling dialectical dialogue between the two. The first thing to come enter my mind is the shot in which Henriette, the daughter of the Parisian family, picks a cherry from the cherry tree underneath which they are having a picnic. The playful nature of her gesture and the meadow immediately evoke Auguste Renoir’s idyllic pastoral scenery. However, it is at the same time difficult not to think of the calamitous moment in the bible wherein Eve reaches for the forbidden fruit, without knowing the scale of catastrophe her action is about to bring upon herself and mankind. For at the end of the film, like in any typical Maupassant story, Henriette’s lively girlhood and innocence will have completely vanished, and domestic drudgery and a broken heart will occupy that vacancy.
One of the most memorable moments in A Day in the Country, the image of Henrietta on a swing, also has a striking resemblance to Renoir’s painting The Swing. However, the dialectical nature of the film infuses the natural exuberance of the scene with a Maupassantian fatalism. We may at first take delights in vivacity in the swing’s movement and Henriette’s elated expressions. Yet, knowing how Henriette’s country romance turns out in the end, the swing’s rocking motion can also suggest the unforgiving force of fate that is about to plunge her into misfortune, and the temporality of her excitement stings us. This beautiful dialectical ambiguity in A Day in the Country hints at the characteristic impariality that later comes to define his entire filmography. As the character Renoir himself plays in La Règle du jeu says, “the real hell of life is everyone has his reasons”—people can be heroes and villains at the same time.
As do many of Renoir’s other films, A Day in the Country displays his pronounced flair for the theatrical. When Henri and Rodolphe, the two country men in the pursuit of quick flings, open up the window adjacent to their lunch table in order to get a glimpse of Henriette and her mother on swings, they instantly become spectators at the theatre, and the two women performers on stage. As Susan Sontag notes in her essay “Theatre and Film,” whereas “theatre is confined to a logical or continuous use of space, cinema […] has access to an alogical or discontinuous use of space.” The simple gesture of opening a window interrupts the continuous flow of the space, thereby ‘illogically’ accommodating two “discontinuous” spaces and time frames within a shot. Just as illogical is the reverse shot wherein the camera now gazes at the two men, framed by the windowpane, from the outside, as if to suggest that they are on stage, too. Rodolphe twirls his mustache, and seems determined to seduce the film’s heroine; he is clearly putting on an ‘act’ of his own. Renoir effortlessly transforms the very same space from auditorium to stage. This is quite literally ‘The Little Theatre of Jean Renoir.’
Life is theatre, and theatre is life, but his rendering of the theatrical in A Day in the Country is, of course, unquestionably cinematic. Surely, the single most remarkable achievement of the film is this very aspect that neither Auguste Renoir nor Maupassant,but only Jean Renoir could bring to the table. One of the shots that astound me on both technical and artistic levels is the medium close up of Henriette on a swing. Here, the bulky camera of the 1930’s is somehow mounted or attached to the swing, and participates in its rocking motion. The sheer thrill of this moving image equals that of the best part(s) of Dziga Vertov’s effervescent The Man with a Movie Camera. Not only that, this shot gives away the light pencil sketch of Henriette’s soul in the same way that Nana’s dance scene in Vivre sa vie does in relation to Anna Karina’s character.
But, do we ever see Henriette’s soul in its more complete form? That is highly debatable, and the answer varies to each one’s own conception of film art and what it can achieve. As for me, I don’t believe that cinema is a medium suitable for ‘recording’ the spiritual. However, I do believe that very few exceptionally gifted filmmakers are capable of painting delicate impressionist portrait of human souls in their work. In A Day in the Country, Jean Renoir proves that he is one of those rare artists. I am, of course, speaking of the extreme close up of Henriette in the climactic seduction towards the end of the film. Christopher Faulkner rightfully claims that the entire picture is geared towards this brief, yet unforgettable close up. How the shot is composed and set up is utterly bizarre and enigmatic: the unusual intimacy with its subject, meticulously calculated focal length, and Henriette’s looking straight into the camera. Nobody but us the audience can see this marvelous face; but, alas, our privilege is so short-lived, as Henriette goes out of focus in the blink of an eye. Nevertheless, it makes a tremendous amount of sense. For, after all, isn’t human soul the greatest of all enigmas in our world?