Jean Renoir is arguably the greatest artist that the cinema has ever known, simply because he was able to work effectively in virtually all genres without sacrificing his individuality or bowing to public or commercial conventions. Although he was the son of the famed Impressionist painter Auguste Renoir, his visual sensibility was entirely his own, and the technical facility that marks his films is the result of long and assiduous study. Renoir’s first serious interest in cinema developed during a period of recuperation after he had been wounded by a stray bullet while serving with the Alpine infantry in 1915. His first active involvement in film came in 1924, when money raised by the sale of some of his father’s paintings (Renoir had died in 1919) allowed him to pursue a career as a fulltime filmmaker.
Renoir’s first film as a solo director, La fille de l’eau (Whirlpool of Fate), was shot in 1925, with Renoir also functioning as producer and art director. Anticipating Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante (1934), the film’s plot centered on a young woman who lives and works on a riverboat. Its modest success led Renoir to plunge, somewhat impulsively, into directing Nana (1926), an adaptation of the Emile Zola novel, which now looks uncharacteristically stagebound. Nearly bankrupt, Renoir had to take out a loan to finance his next film, Charleston (Sur un air de Charleston, 1927), a 17-minute work of fantasy that featured Catherine Hessling – Renoir’s wife – teaching the popular title dance in costumes that were as brief as possible. After the film attained only limited success, Renoir accepted a straight commercial directing job on Marquitta (1927), a film that is now completely lost to cinema history. Renoir’s next significant film was Tire au flanc (The Sad Sack, 1928), a military comedy that François Truffaut would later call a visual “tour de force”, and which marked the director’s first collaboration with actor Michel Simon. The working relationship between Renoir and Hessling, meanwhile, had taken its toll; the couple separated in 1930.
To prove that he understood the new medium of sound film, Renoir directed a down-and-dirty comedy based on a farce by Georges Feydeau, On purge bébé (1931). The film was shot on a very short schedule, with Renoir apparently letting the camera run for as long as possible during each take, in order to work around the clumsy sound-on-disc recording apparatus. Renoir’s first talkie was a huge hit, allowing him to rush into production on his first major sound film, La chienne (The Bitch, 1931). This was the first of his films to be edited by Marguerite Renoir, with whom the director became romantically involved at this time and who would take on his name, though the couple never married. It was on this film, too, that Renoir developed his early strategy of sound shooting. In the face of objections – from his producers down to his sound technicians—he insisted on using only natural sync-sound, recorded for the most part in actual locations. He would pursue this method through his masterpieces of the first half of the 1930s, such as Boudu sauvé des eaux (Boudu Saved from Drowning, 1932) and Toni (1935), a film that approaches neo-realist intensity in its use of non-professional actors and actual locations (1).
This strategy of location shooting with sync-sound would serve Renoir well on the much more romantic production of Partie de campagne, Shot in 1936 but not released until 1946, it is a 40-minute film which Renoir considered fragmentary at the time, and was not anxious to release. The film’s production was interrupted for a variety of reasons (mainly inclement weather) and never completed; yet in the end, Renoir decided that the incomplete film had enough substance to stand on its own. And indeed, he was right; Philip Kemp has described Partie de campagne as “maybe the best unfinished film ever made” (2). As a featurette, the film’s charm and warmth shine through without the burden of a feature-length narrative, and Renoir’s innate humanism and sense of indolent romance suffuse the entire production.
Originally designed to run for roughly 50 minutes, and set on a blazingly sunny day, Partie de campagne’s shoot was plagued by incessant rain delays, and at length, Renoir abandoned the project to begin shooting Les bas fonds (The Lower Depths, 1936) with Jean Gabin, and never returned to the project. The film’s producer, Pierre Braunberger, at first thought of turning the footage into a feature length film with a new script by Jacques Prevert, but this came to nothing; it was only after World War II that Braunberger, working with Marguerite Renoir, put together the 40-minute version that used “intertitles to replace the missing scenes, and a masterly score commissioned from Joseph Kosma” (3).
Based on a short story by Guy de Maupassant, who was a friend of Jean Renoir’s father, Partie de campagne is a seemingly simple story of a Parisian shopkeeper, Monsieur Dufour (André Gabriello), who spends a day in the country with his family in 19th century France. During the outing, the Dufour family meet two young men, Rodolphe (Jacques Brunius) and Henri (Georges D’Arnoux). Monsieur Dufour is content to spend the day fishing with Anatolé (Paul Temps), who is ostensibly the fiancé of his daughter, Henriette (Sylvia Bataille). Henriette and Madame Dufour (Jeanne Marken), however, have their own idea of how to pass the day; Madame Dufour spends her time in dalliance with Rodolphe, while young Henriette enjoys an idyllic rendezvous with Henri.
As befits the project, Claude Renoir’s camerawork is smooth and assured, and moves smoothly through the world the characters inhabit with graceful assurance. In many ways, although the director never formally completed the film, it is Renoir’s most concise statement on the frailty of human nature, the mutability of love, the uncertain journey of the human heart, and the seeming inevitability of passion overtaking conventional social mores. As always, Renoir does not judge his characters, but rather observe their foibles with affectionate regard. The film also communicates a love of nature which would never desert the filmmaker, even in his final films, such as the much underrated Le déjeuner sur l’herbe (Lunch on the Grass, 1959), made in the last stage of the director’s career.
In its peculiar provenance – shot before the war, but completed only after it – I would argue that Partie de campagne captures a precise moment in French history and society before the outbreak of hostilities with the Nazis, when the France of the 1900s was still within authentic human recall. Who could have predicted the horrors that were soon to come, with war in Europe declared in 1939, the fall of Paris in 1940, Renoir’s exile in the United States, and, only after some time had passed, his return to a France much changed by conflict and economic circumstance? In many of his later films, such as French Cancan (1954), Renoir sought to lovingly recapture the past; the innocence of Partie de campagne, too, is very much a product of the time in which it was created, when life was still relatively carefree, before the world’s collective fall from grace. As such, it is one of Renoir’s most accessible works, and a joyous celebration of life, love, and the human condition (4).
- The first three paragraphs are taken, in a condensed form, from my entry on Renoir for The Encyclopedia of Film, ed. James Monaco and the editors of Baseline, Pedigree, New York, 1991, pp. 449-51. This entry has been republished numerous times online without correct authorial attribution.
- Philip Kemp, “Notes”, Partie de campagne, DVD, BFI, 2003. It should be noted that this essential DVD also includes some 42 minutes of outtakes from the film, and gives one a true sense of the circumstances of the film’s production.
- The following other sources were consulted in the preparation of this article: Richard Armstrong, “Partie de campagne”, The Film Journal no. 7, 2002: http://www.thefilmjournal.com/issue7/partie.html.; André Bazin, Jean Renoir, trans. W. W. Halsey II and William H. Simon, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1973; Leo Braudy, Jean Renoir: The World of His Films, Doubleday, Garden City, NY, 1972; Raymond Durgnat, Jean Renoir, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1974; James Leahy, “Jean Renoir”, Senses of Cinema no. 25, March-April 2003: http://archive.sensesofcinema.com/contents/directors/03/renoir.html#senses; Pierre Leprohon, Jean Renoir: An Investigation into His Films and Philosophy, trans. Brigid Elson Crown, New York, 1971; Alexander Sesonske, Jean Renoir: The French Films, 1924 -1939, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1980.
Partie de campagne/A Day in the Country (1936/46 France 40 mins)
Prod Co: Panthéon Productions Prod: Pierre Braunberger Dir: Jean Renoir Scr: Jean Renoir, based on the story by Guy de Maupassant Phot: Claude Renoir Ed: Marguerite Houle Renoir, Marinette Cadix Mus: Joseph Kosma Assis Dir: Jacques Becker, Henri Cartier[-Bresson], Yves Allégret [uncredited], Claude Heymann [uncredited], Luchino Visconti [uncredited]
Cast: Sylvia Bataille, Georges Saint-Saens, Jeanne [Jane] Marken, [André] Gabriello, Jacques Borel [Brunius], Paul Temps, Gabrielle Fontan, Jean Renoir, Marguerite Renoir