Jean Renoir’s A Day in the Country is, by my count, the first film in The Criterion Collection totaling 45 minutes or less since Luis Bunuel’s Simon of the Desert—but even that was an implied companion piece to the release of Bunuel’s The Exterminating Angel that same month.
Admittedly, A Day in the Country is a renowned film by Renoir, but even so, one may have sooner expected it to show up as a bonus feature or one film in a boxset. The distinction is completely deserved, however, and in spite of its 41-minute duration, this 1936 gem is one of the most direct and sensual of all of Renoir’s masterpieces.
Renoir – son of painter Pierre-Auguste – set out to make a 40-minute movie with the intention to create an omnibus film, a two-hour piece composed of three shorts, an idea that was completely unheard of at the time. Excited to embark on a pleasant eight-day shoot in the country at a friend’s home, the production ended up being a disaster. Rainy days delayed filming, stretching the shoot to seven weeks before Renoir actually abandoned the film, leaving it unfinished.
Jacques Becker shot for eight days using Renoir’s instructions, but some scenes were never completed. The version edited together (without the director’s involvement) and released in 1946, after the war therefore has all the ingredients to be an impersonal, incomplete mess—and yet the film seems to have all of Renoir’s spirit intact. A clear homage to his dad, A Day in the Country is shot in a setting that could be taken right out of Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s paintings, and at times frames seem to be copied directly.
The story, loosely adapted from a short story by Guy de Maupassant, follows a bourgeois family from Paris that visits the countryside and has an impromptu picnic by the river. Two bored, ogling locals pursue a mother and her daughter, eventually taking them for an afternoon boat ride, leading to a tryst between one of the men and the more nubile of the female companions.
As simple as a movie can be, this casual day-long tale is ripe for a critical, class-conscious look at these characters (in line with Renoir’s familiar themes), and indeed observations specific to the characters’ upbringings and status fuel much of the lightly comic happenings. But ultimately the film is content to observe these people as equals. Overwhelmingly compassionate, the film is a testament to Renoir’s trademark humanism. Once the lovers from different walks of laugh embrace, nature seems to take over the entire movie, a bird chirping in the tree, raindrops in the river, wind in the greenery, the differences between people overruled by the grand gestures of the earth. In parallel, this film seems to be an example of cinema overtaking even one of its greatest masters as the quality of the film seems to contradict the context of its making.
The supplements place particular emphasis on the uniqueness of the film in Renoir’s oeuvre: the length, its imperfect nature, and its odd release history. A video essay by Christopher Faulkner reveals plenty of insight into the Renoir’s working methods (pieced together partly from invaluable footage of the film being made, also included as a 90-minute feature on the disc!).
There’s also an interview with Faulkner, which very nicely situates the film in its context, while pointing out some of its virtues. Following suit from Criterion’s other Jean Renoir releases, the film includes an old introduction from the man himself (and this one is actually among his most colourful and impassioned!).
Gilberto Perez’s essay from the release’s booklet captures the film’s special quality rather well, especially in articulating the film’s elliptical closing sequence: “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…As if that river we’re leaving behind were the last version of pastoral irrevocably receding from our motorboat.”
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For more info on the release, visit Criterion.