In the summer of 1936, director Jean Renoir began shooting Partie de campagne, a short slice-of-life feature spotlighting a family's low-key activities on a gentle summer day. Unfortunately, weather issues got in the way of production, and Renoir was unable to finish the film. A decade later, producer Pierre Braunberger completed the movie using the existing footage and released it in theatres as A Day in the Country (using title cards to acknowledge the unfinished nature of the project and to fill in a few plot details that would have been provided by the scenes Renoir never got around to shooting). Remarkably, it's the rare unfinished work that manages to feel perfectly satisfactory on its own terms – there's an abrupt power to the film's conclusion that almost certainly would have been lost if the director had been able to complete the movie.
For the most part, A Day in the Country is an idyllic portrait of humanity and nature co-existing in blissful harmony. Renoir gazes upon the river, the grass and the trees with as much loving affection as he examines his characters, and you can almost feel the cool breeze blowing through your hair and the gentle sunlight caressing your cheek. We watch as a handful of people wallow in the grass, idle on a swing and fish in the river. It's lovely, and Renoir's knack for mise-en-scene and indelible deep focus cinematography (check out that marvelous shot of windblown swings in the foreground and jovial humans in the background) foreshadows his masterful work on future films like Grand Illusion (which he began working on after abandoning this effort) and The Rules of the Game (which feels thematically closer to this film than you might think).
For the most part, the characters are simple sketches, as there isn't enough time to really get to know anyone. Still, the film's casting and characterization choices ensure that we're able to jump to some pretty quick conclusions about who these people are. The family we meet includes a bumbling father (Andre Gabriello, The Lower Depths), a cheerful mother (Jane Markin, Children of Paradise), their sweet-natured adult daughter Henriette (Sylvia Bataille), Henriette's grandmother (Gabrielle Fontan, The Gates of Paris) and Henriette's doltish fiance (Paul Temps, Just Before Nightfall). Upon their arrival at a humble country inn, the family meets two genial bachelors: the perpetually flirty Rodolphe (Jacques B. Brunius, The Lavender Hill Mob) and the buttoned-down Henri (Georges D'Arnoux, The Crime of Monsieur Lange).
The two men are immediately drawn to Henriette, and begin to speculate about how they might win her over. Rodolphe fantasizes about seducing her with sweet-talk, convincing her to go on a boatride and eventually making love in a secluded location. Henri scoffs at the plan and outlines the potential consequences. What if she gets pregnant? Is Rodolphe really prepared to be a father? If not, is he willing to casually wreck a girl's life for the sake of temporary pleasure? Henri takes relationships seriously, and only engages in romantic relationships if he sees long-term potential.
The film's most surprising factor is the way it takes these two men and upends our expectations of them, building to a scene of startling tragedy. In the wake of this, Renoir cuts away from the humans and simply examines the raindrops splashing in the river, speaking with a furious eloquence the characters are incapable of providing. It's here that the never-filmed scenes are skipped, and we jump forward in time to a heartbreaking epilogue that fills the mostly-pleasant film with wrenching emotion. It's hard to say who to credit for the film's power. Renoir obviously provided the raw materials, but wasn't involved in the post-production process (the thoughtful editing and the exquisite Joseph Kosma score play a large role in the movie's effectiveness). I'm not sure how A Day in the Country should be classified – it's longer than a short and shorter than a feature – but its 41-minute running time and unfinished nature prove key factors in its success. It's a minor gem of a movie, half by accident and half by design.
A Day in the Country
Rating: ★★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 41 minutes
Release Year: 1946