“When painters went out to the countryside round Paris in the 1870s,” wrote the art historian T. J. Clark, “they would have known they were choosing, or accepting, a place it was easy (almost conventional) to find a bit absurd.” A bit absurd because this wasn’t really the country but more like the illusion of it, a place where city dwellers would dip their toes in nature on their day off. Yet the impressionist painters cherished the excursionist’s landscape, the visitor’s gladdening moment of light and greenery, open air and rippling water. Claude Monet and Pierre-Auguste Renoir created a pastoral of the Sunday outing, not of the landed gentry but of ordinary people enjoying a break. We get a critical view of such an excursion, however, in Guy de Maupassant’s story “Une partie de campagne” (1881). A petit bourgeois Parisian family—father, mother, daughter, old grandmother, and a pale apprentice in the family’s hardware business expected to marry the daughter—goes out in a borrowed milkman’s cart for a Sunday in the country, during which both the mother and the daughter have amorous encounters with local young men.
Jean Renoir described his painter father and the writer Maupassant as “two men [who] were friendly enough but frankly admitted they had nothing in common. Renoir said of the writer, ‘He always looks on the dark side’—while Maupassant said of the painter, ‘He always looks on the bright side.’” The film version of Maupassant’s story made by Renoir the son in 1936 conducts something of a dialogue between the painter and the writer. In the film, the excursionist father and apprentice are indeed absurd, one fat, the other thin, Laurel and Hardy bumbling around the landscape. But alongside these figures of farce, the mother and the young man she romps with are more gently comical, the daughter and her young man wholly serious and convincing—a bold mixture of acting styles, characters differently represented. Renoir looks back at the impressionist pastoral in a spirit both affectionate and critical, sunny and somber. The impressionists painted the momentary impression and thereby made it permanent. Jean Renoir’s A Day in the Country depicts the arresting moment that inevitably dissolves in the passing years and yet palpably endures in the recollecting mind.
From La chienne (1931) to Toni (1935), The Crime of Monsieur Lange (1936) to The Rules of the Game (1939),the thirties saw the peak of Jean Renoir’s art. Made just before Grand Illusion (1937) won him international acclaim, A Day in the Country was left unfinished. Had it been released at the time, Sylvia Bataille, who is wonderful as the daughter, would have likely become a star. She never forgave Renoir for interrupting production when, after delays caused by rain and other problems, he had to leave for another commitment. But the film was always intended to be somewhat shorter than a standard feature and, released a decade later, came to be recognized as a major work. Nothing is wanting in this forty-one-minute film: the rain made for a remarkable unspoken conclusion to the country outing, best left without elaboration.
The local young men in Maupassant’s story are indistinguishable from each other, but the two canotiers, boatmen like those in impressionist paintings, are the first characters individually drawn in Renoir’s film, Rodolphe as the more frivolous, Henri as the more serious of the two. Sitting at table—country people, of course, prefer to eat inside—they comment derisively on the Parisians who have arrived for their lunch on the grass. But Rodolphe opens a window that lets in, with a sudden brightness, an irresistible view of the outdoors and of the visiting mother and daughter on swings. Only Rodolphe leans out to watch, however, Henri scarcely taking a glance outside; and the window frame intrudes to remind us that the alluring sight it contains is, after all, only a picture—literally a picture for us in the audience, and for the canotiers merely a spectacle.
For our first close look at one of the visitors, Renoir singles out the daughter, Henriette, whom we see on her swing, exulting in the open air, the camera moving with her and viewing her from a low angle that enhances her soaring feeling. And it adds to the exhilaration that the camera doesn’t follow her quite steadily through the air, so that its movement seems to partake of her transport, and doesn’t frame her quite stably on the screen, so that her transport seems uncontainable within the bounds of the image.
Henriette on her swing acts out a sense of freedom inseparable from a sense of nature. Freedom, to a way of thinking we inherit from the romantics, arises from nature: in nature we are born free, and in nature we gain freedom from the conventions and constrictions of society.
More than the center of attention, she’s almost the center of consciousness: we move with her, identify with her, feel with her. We observe her from various points all around: from below, and also from eye level and from above; from close, and also in long shots taken from different sides; flying with her on her swing, and also standing still as she swings forward and swings back. And she’s being observed by others in the scene: boys gazing over a hedge, young seminarians passing by, as well as her steadiest watcher, the enamored canotier. But her ride through the air sets her apart from all others, whether visitors or locals, and the sense of her awakening sexuality comes across as her own response to nature, not something in the eye of any male beholder. After a while, we return to Rodolphe at the window, the window that framed her like a picture or a spectacle when he initially opened it, and now we see him framed by that window like a theatrical performer. He sees her as performing for his benefit on a stage he intends to join as seducer; but it is his watching rather than her swinging that seems theatrical, conventionalized. A frame confines, and he is confined by a role, while she precisely rejoices in her freedom from confinement. And yet, when observed from his perspective, her naturalness and spontaneity can be seen as theatrical, as vulnerable to theater. How real is her freedom, we ask, how meaningful her naturalness? It’s an illusion of nature, we reflect, an illusion she may have trouble making a reality. And the canotier twirling his mustache is not the only theater, not the only conventionalization she has to fear.
As things develop, Rodolphe settles for the mother, and it is with Henri—the sweeter one, the more romantically affecting, for better or worse—that Henriette goes boating on the river. From an overhead view of their rowboat gliding on the water, we cut, movement to movement, to a shot traveling along the river, with grasses and trees softly going by on the shore; and another, more extended and immersive traveling shot soon follows, now turned toward the other shore, where trees overhang the river and cast their reflections in the water.
These cannot be called point-of-view shots—they proceed without any inserted shots of a character designated as the observer—but they give us a sense of looking at the river and its shores through the eyes of a person riding in a slow-moving, gently rocking rowboat. Even if it seldom assumes a character’s point of view, Renoir’s camera always meets the world from a position that is recognizably concrete, on a human plane. Maupassant presents this scene through the daughter’s subjectivity: we identify with a young woman tipsy from the wine she had at lunch (“The effects of the wine . . . made all the trees on the bank seem to bow as she passed”) and on her way to succumbing to a seductive young man. Our identification with Henriette in Renoir’s film is of a different kind. We don’t view things from her perspective, which isn’t ours, but from a perspective akin to hers that, imagining ourselves in a boat on that river, we feel could well be ours. We are in a way more detached, and in another way more implicated: we have much the same susceptible response as she has to the beauty and sensuality of nature in summer.
On an island in the river, Henriette yields to Henri “tremblingly, like a captured bird” (as Pauline Kael described her). A tight close-up, with his hand on her cheek as she lies under him on the grass, her face cropped by the top edge of the frame so that we see only one tearful eye looking at us, indeed compares her to a captured bird.
Captured not just by his advances but by her own feelings, Henriette cries the tears of a virgin losing her virginity and of a woman afraid that her tremblingly embraced romance won’t last. The love awakened in nature can endure only in society. Her look at us is a forlorn look at a society that has in store for her a loveless marriage to the farcical pale apprentice.
After Henriette and Henri’s lovemaking, the day darkens and a rainstorm gathers and breaks. Images of nature take over, nature emptied of people, as if they were all being left behind. Having slowly journeyed upriver, the camera now, in three successive traveling shots that are the film’s most emphatic visual maneuver, briskly backs away downriver as the rain falls and the Sunday outing comes to an abrupt end. Not just the pace and direction of movement but the very sense of time at one stroke shifts. Without hurry, savoring the immediate appearances of sunny nature, keeping to the time scale of the moment, the film wends its way toward the consummation on the river island; and then, suddenly, the swiftness of the camera’s rainy retreat evokes the rush of years ceaselessly passing, the time scale of a lifetime.
“Swiftly the years, beyond recall. / Solemn the stillness of this spring morning.” In Seven Types of Ambiguity, William Empson considers these two lines from a Chinese poem. “The human mind has two main scales on which to measure time,” he writes, the large scale that “takes the length of a human life as its unit” and the small scale that “takes as its unit the conscious moment,” and in these lines both come into play at once, so that “the years of a man’s life seem swift even on the small scale” and “the morning seems still even on the large scale.” The Chinese poem shifts from the years to the day, Renoir’s film from the day to the years, with a similar effect of ambiguity. On either scale, the camera’s retreat downriver seems swift; on either scale, the moment of exhilaration on the swing, of communion with nature on the boat ride upriver, of verdant romance on the river island, seems suspended in time. But the film’s shift from the day to the years is a shift from promise to loss, from a feeling of oneness to a sense of estrangement—not the serenity of the poem’s juxtaposition of time scales. Years later, Henri and Henriette meet again on the now autumnal river island, where she has come with her clown of a husband, and we realize with a shock that his farce is her tragedy.
If it traveled upriver in a rowboat, the camera backs away downriver at the speed of a motorboat, a vehicle in which the nineteenth-century characters couldn’t have been traveling. The departing backward views were evidently taken from an unsteady small vessel, which could be the same one that traveled upriver and in which we can imagine ourselves riding on a nice day and hurrying back when it starts to rain, but whose motion now gains a rapidity beyond rowing. At the close of an outing it has made its own—and ours—Renoir’s camera in its hurried retreat detaches itself not only from the characters but from the whole period of the fiction. The sense of years passing, a long span compressed into a few accelerated moments, extends from the characters’ lives to the lives of all of us, in all the years that have passed since that time of picnics on the grass and susceptible daughters surrendering to love by the waterside. It’s as if the day in the country, having begun in the nineteenth century, were concluding in our time—as if that river we’re leaving behind were the last version of pastoral irrevocably receding from our motorboat. Renoir omits the characters from this visual cadence that, no mere ornament to the story, is the film’s culminant sequence, rich in associations with them but mainly addressing us, drawing us into a reflective look at things from where we stand outside the fiction.