I first saw Jean Renoir's Partie de campagne early on a late August evening in 1979. The director died that February, and the BBC was running a tribute to his work. Renoir's film chronicles a tentative love affair as it buds somewhere along the banks of the Seine over a single summer afternoon in 1860. As summer turned to autumn that evening, I remember being peculiarly aware of the thinning light.
Renoir's fleeting idyll nearly become one of the cinema's great 'films maudits', or lost films. Shooting began on the banks of the then-unspoilt Loing in that joyous Popular Front summer of 1936 by a happy crew of Renoir regulars, relatives and friends, but the production became so delayed by rain and bad light that Renoir had to move onto his next film. Partie de campagne was eventually abandoned. However, producer Pierre Braunberger so liked the footage he had seen that by 1946 Renoir's editor and former lover Marguerite Houllé-Renoir had reconstructed a viable print.
Although based on a short story by Guy de Maupassant, in so many ways Partie de campagne is a quintessential Renoir film, and a tribute to the Second Empire world of his father, the impressionist painter Auguste Renoir. A Paris ironmonger and his family, the Dufours, have a day out. They meet two young men Rodolphe and Henri. In holiday mood, M Dufour and his daughter Henriette's fiancé Anatole go off to fish, while Henriette and her mother go boating with the young men. Whilst Mme Dufour enjoys a carefree fling with Rodolphe, Henri and Henriette row to a secluded island where, to the song of a nightingale cock courting a hen, they sit alone together
Suffused with the rhythms of nature, Partie de campagne is a sensuous and lyrical film. Notice how Renoir's nephew Claude's camera trails alongside the lovers as if enticing them to follow this affection wherever it leads. Later, to the strains of Germaine Montero's lilting theme tune, rain sweeps across the river, as ever Renoir's metaphor for the intricacy of experience. As critic Philip Kemp in his engaging commentary explains, the director's use of deep focus foresaw Gregg Toland's and you can feel that humility before the world that André Bazin so appreciated in Renoir. (It comes as little surprise that Luchino Visconti, who foretold the Italian neo-realism that Bazin loved, was one of Renoir's assistants). Others included postwar directors Jacques Becker - Touchez pas au grisbi - Yves Allégret - Dédée d'Anvers - and the photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, who published photographs taken on the Renoir set.
and Mme Dufour play at love, Henri and Henriette find love itself, the
camera catching their kiss as if closing in on a butterfly leaving the
chrysalis. "Years passed with Sundays as bleak as Mondays. Anatole
married Henriette, and one Sunday
", a title reads, priming
us for the film's bittersweet ending. As Henriette, the dark-haired Sylvia
Bataille's face lights up with girlish joy while her body seems to quiver
with longing. Evoking the girl in Renoir père's canvas La Balançoire,
the camera gets up close, involving us in Henriette's jouissance. As Kemp
tells us, Renoir made Partie de campagne partly as an excuse to
take close-ups of Bataille, an actress whose transitions from sadness
to joy may remind contemporary audiences of the wistful Samantha Morton
of Sweet and Lowdown (1999). As Henri, the doleful Georges Saint-Saëns
looks forward to the tragic Jean Gabin of the French Poetic Realist films
that so reflected the gathering storm of the late-30s.