Jean Renoir’s “A Day in the Country” Was Never Completed, But The Film Is A Classic
The Criterion Collection is a distribution company that specializes in “important” classic and contemporary films. Through Filmstruck, many of these films are made available to stream. Once a week, I like to bring a Criterion movie to deepen one’s understanding of film-making and film history. This week’s movie: “A Day in the Country” (1936).
If you recognize the last name, you are on to something.
Jean Renoir, son of renowned French painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir, is touted as one of the greatest movie directors of all time. Many film historians credit Jean Renoir as being a film auteur — someone who thinks of film/film-making as high art. A director with over 40 films to his credit, Renoir seems to slip many casual film fans when thinking of great directors. Growing up, living in the United States, not knowing Renoir or seeing any of his movies makes sense. The multiplexes here were not playing Renoir movies — at least where I grew up. But, thanks to streaming services such as Filmstruck, his work can be easily accessed by anyone interested in his work.
I first came across Renoir, however, a four or five years back. A portion of his work was available via the Criterion section on Hulu. OK, here is this great director, I thought, let me give one of his flicks a try. The cover for A Day in the Country seemed sweet, happy and light. The synopsis — “While on a day trip to the countryside with her parents, a young woman falls in love with a local boy” — seemed equally as light. The kicker, however, was realizing this movie was never finished.
Before diving into the off the camera details, let us take a look at this 40 minute “featurette”. (Let me answer two big questions for some now: Yes, the movie is in black and white. Yes, the movie is French, but there is English subtitles. Don’t let that stop you from watching!)
The film opens — after credits with a backdrop of a river — with a family on their way to the countryside for lunch. They ultimately end up at a restaurant in the countryside, where the two men who run it take an interest in the daughter and the mother. The two men try to get derive some alone time with the two ladies. One of the men — Henri — gets the courage to ask the daughter — Henriette — to visit him again. She’s in love and wants to come back. However, Henriette says her father will not allow her to come to the countryside alone. In short, the flirting does not pay off. Everyone goes their separate ways. Years later, Henriette returns to the countryside with her new husband and sees Henri. She tears up, remembering the day they shared together. Seemingly disappointed, she returns to her husband, leaving Henri alone.
The story derives from a short story from writer Guy De Maupassant, and being only 40 minutes is to this film’s advantage. That is not a knock, but a weird compliment. The story is not simple, from its characters to the location. There is no over-the-top plot points or story-arcs, nor is it bogged down by a weird French New Wave-ness — that comes later in film history. Renoir intended this film to be 40 minutes, which is an indicator that he knew this material really well.
The film takes place, mostly, outside. The scenery is not stunning, but it is relatable, which is important. There is a universalness to A Day in the Country. If not for the French language, the setting and its characters could be placed anywhere in the world and the film would be just as good. Along with that setting, we can each relate to one of the characters very well: we have all flirted or been flirted by someone. As far as storytelling goes, this movies is as good as it gets.
With a strong story, Renoir lets that story be told without any real cinematic distractions. There is no major overacting — which is a big thing with a movie so close to the silent era. There are no major camera movements where it takes away from the story. The soundtrack is airy and light, just like the summer day portrayed in the film.
Another key component of the story: love. The feeling is a strong part in many of the characters in this movie: the daughter loves her mother, the men believe they love these women, everyone loves nature. Showcasing the French countryside in the summer-y way Renoir does makes the viewer well aware of how much the director and characters appreciate and love nature.
The ending is where the film takes a sharp turn. We get the sense that Henriette really likes Henri, but the relationship can not move forward. So, a storm comes. A perfect metaphorical image that something bad has happened. The storm is also a storytelling device that time passes. With shots of trees and grass blowing in the wind, the film picks up some time after Henri and Henriette’s encounter to find Henriette, with her new husband, back in the countryside.
I really liked using nature as a transition, but the symphonic soundtrack really swelled at this point. Personally, I would have enjoyed usually a natural soundtrack with this transition. Let us hear the rain and wind. But, a soundtrack overrode natural sound most of the film, so the move is a consistent one. I really can not fault the film for that touch.
A Day in the Country is a simple, yet genius directed film, coupled with a perfect 40 minute story. The film was never completely finished due to weather problems. It was released 10 years after it was shot.
Included in the Criterion Collection release are film essays about the film and screen tests and outtakes — very rare for Renoir and this time in film history. Perhaps they include a snippet of where this film was concluding…