By Alan Mattli
If one were to be marooned in a distinct period of film history, the French Poetic Realism of the 1930s and 40s would certainly be a most agreeable place to be stranded in. It was here that the artistic achievements of impressionist filmmaking were combined with expert storytelling based in the reality of pre-war Front populaire France – an amalgam which proved to be an essential influence for Italian neorealismo and the 1960s’ Nouvelle Vague. To this day, films like Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante, Marcel Carné’s Le quai des brumes, Le jour se lève, and Les enfants du paradis, or Jean Renoir’s famous triptych La grande illusion, La bête humaine, and La règle du jeu stand tall as masterstrokes by any measure. One of the most fascinating products of that unique point in the history of cinema, however, is an unfinished project: in 1936, Renoir started an adaptation of a story by Guy de Maupassant but abandoned it due to bad weather. Ten years later, producer Pierre Braunberger re-edited the existing footage and put together Partie de campagne.
One summer day in 1860, a bourgeois family from Paris ventures to the countryside along the Seine. They stop at an inn owned by jovial widower Poulain (Renoir) and decide to stay there for the afternoon. Madame Dufour (Jane Marken) and her daughter Henriette (Sylvia Bataille) go on a boating trip where they are seduced by two young men named Rodolphe (Jacques B. Brunius) and Henri (Georges D’Arnoux), while Monsieur Dufour (André Gabriello) tries to teach his dim-witted future son-in-law Anatole (Paul Temps) a thing or two about fishing.
At just a few seconds under 40 minutes, Partie de campagne narrowly fails to qualify as a feature film. And yet, although it was originally planned as a fully fleshed out release, there is hardly a moment in which the movie feels chopped up or rushed, save for what was presumably intended as a second part but ended up being reduced to a three-minute epilogue. Not only does this point to above-par editing on Pierre Braunberger’s part but also to the strength of the existing material. Indeed, the whole product is just as rewarding, just as stimulating as movies double or triple its length – perhaps even because of its slightly vague and hazy nature.
It is clear from the start that Renoir relies heavily on impressionist tradition, decidedly more so than in his other works, which are more grounded in Poetic Realism’s love for the mundane. He pays homage to the pioneers of impressionist cinema (he himself started in this genre) – Dulac, Epstein, Gance, L’Herbier – with obvious reverence by promoting his setting to more than mere filming locations: the picturesque Seine bank becomes a major player in Maupassant’s short story of love and lust, a veritable garden of Eden where true feelings are embraced and social status and hierarchy are abandoned; premonitions of La règle du jeu‘s thinly veiled subversion are easily found. But Renoir knows that the 1920s’ wave of cinematic impressionism was, basically, just an extension of its painted predecessors. Many of the set pieces featured in Partie de campagne are reminiscent of works by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Jean’s father, or Édouard Manet, most prominently “Le déjeuner sur l’herbe”.
However, impressionism is just the aesthetic skeleton around which the featurette is built. The echoes of past masters would not be as striking were it not for Renoir’s own sublime vision as a director. Helped by DP Claude Renoir, his nephew, and assisting directors Jacques Becker (!) and Luchino Visconti (!), he creates a poem of a film. The tranquil shots of a rained-on Seine sport a natural visual eloquence that is more commonly associated with Japanese than with European cinema; the camera movement mimicking Sylvia Bataille’s daring exploits on a swing are of a dizzying beauty; the almost constant use of music lends the whole affair a curiously meandering feel, like being adrift in a small bark, a sensation not too far removed from L’Atalante. Indeed, the soundtrack is used to stunning effect here, sometimes even drowning out bits of dialogue as if to emphasise just to what degree love takes precedence over the spoken word.
And although the movie is set in 1860, it, like many of its contemporaries, is fascinatingly perceptive about France’s situation in the latter half of the 1930s. With a brand of humour that is more pronounced than in his other works, Renoir paints a benignly satirical picture of the bourgeoisie’s harmless follies. While the men engage in typical bourgeois activities, the women are lured away by two workers – with the men’s blessing. But the humour works at a more basic level as well: when pompous Monsieur Dufour shows thick Anatole how to catch a fish, it’s a challenge not to be reminded of the misadventures of Laurel and Hardy. Moreover, some theorists and more venturous critics may even discover a deeper kind of satire in Partie de campagne, view it as being akin to Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari or Menschen am Sonntag, in that it can be read in hindsight as a piece of zeitgeist, that it anticipates the horrors lying ahead in the years to come, especially because it was completed after 1945. As for whether this would be accurate, suffice to say that it is undoubtedly tempting to see the approaching clouds looming on the horizon and the subsequent rainstorm – not to mention the final (post-war?) reunion of Henri and Henriette, which is passionate but doomed – as a sardonic metaphor for World War II, if only as a testimony to the film’s continued fascination.
To say that it is the better work than La bête humaine or La règle du jeu, or even to make the comparison, wouldn’t be fair to any one of those movies. The latter are refined, articulate, and, of course, completed works of a master of cinema. But Partie de campagne, in its sketchiness, its incompleteness, is probably the more profound experience, a literary piece of subtle beauty recited over the whispering summer wind. It is the perfect embodiment of the scene in Jim Jarmusch’s The Limits of Control where Tilda Swinton’s character says: “The best films are like dreams you’re never sure you really had.”
★★★★★½ (out of six)