Partie de campagne (1936)

“Henriette at the oars while her useless husband languishes in the boat’s prow. It’s the opposite of the way in which Henri once rowed her to this secluded spot to seduce her, and as he watches her row away, partially obscured by the leafy foliage overhanging the river, this last little comic touch becomes almost unbearably sad. What a wonderful, rich, warm, intelligent movie”

‘Partie de campagne’, directed by Jean Renoir in 1936, is a short, French romance based on a story by Guy de Maupassant. A family go for a picnic in the countryside. The stop for lunch at an inn and meet two men who take an interest in the daughter of the family, who is engaged to a foppish shop assistant. They take the girl and her mother for a boat-trip, and one man tries to seduce her. The film then cuts to a number of years later and the man returns to the site of their liaison and finds her with her now husband. They briefly meet, then part ways. The film was unfinished, but this isn’t entirely evident in what happens on screen. As it stands, Renoir’s film is a perfect and complete vignette about love, loss and nature. It’s a like a miniature epic, a story about life told on a small scale, in a location that is the length of an hours row up the river. The characters as well are portraits that verge on caricatures, particularly the garrulous landlord Poulain, played by Renoir himself, and the fey, creepy fiancé Anatole. Renoir captures the serenity of the countryside, the movement of the water and the labyrinthine nature of the undergrowth. It’s obviously in black and white, but the clean and precise focus the director places on the natural world makes it seem like the film is in colour.

Would I recommend it? Yes – it’s a sublime, mayfly-like film – a taste of Renoir’s skills and style as a director, but also a profound glimpse into the optimism of pre-war France. Watch with ‘The Rules of the Game’ to see what happened to Renoir’s movie making when the country was occupied.

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