Partie de Campagne (1946) BFI Blu Ray


There are many unfinished works of art that are still profoundly satisfying as they feel completed and have a thematic coherence: what’s left doesn’t frustrate, leaving you wanting more.  F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel Tender is the Night and Anton Bruckner’s 9th Symphony spring to mind.  In cinema the unfinished film is often a limp casualty when a sudden withdrawal of funding, the death of the leading actor or hazardous locations can close things down.  Yet in the case of Jean Renoir’s Partie de Campagne (Shot in 1936 but not released until 1946) we can ask the unusual question, for film production, does it matter if it’s unfinished?  No, not for me.

At the end of summer 1936 Renoir was disinclined / disinterested in completing Partie de Campagne.  He’d already started on his next film The Lower Depths.  Only forty minutes of Partie de Campagne exist but Renoir did conceive of it as a featurette or short.  Something like 55 minutes in length was probably envisaged.  But bad weather interrupted then halted the shoot.  It rained in buckets for days turning into weeks.  Such disruption placed a terrible strain on the budget (already reduced) and Renoir’s unhappy actors turned fractious on the set.  It’s then incredible that what was filmed is outstanding.

Partie de Campagne is a period piece set in 1860, an adaptation of the Guy de Maupassant short story, A Day in the Country (1881).  A shop-owner from Paris takes his family for a day out by the banks of the Seine.  His young daughter Henriette (Sylvia Bataille, delivering an exquisite performance) is the object of attention for two young men, Henri (Georges D’Arnoux) and Rudolphe (Jacques B. Brunius).  Henri seduces Henriette.  A rainstorm occurs afterwards.  Years later they meet again in the same spot.  Henriette is trapped in a boring marriage.  Henri has never stopped thinking about his attraction to Henriette.  She tearfully reminisces about their time together.  The former couple, of that brief encounter, then go their separate ways.

Aided by the splendidly fresh photography of Claude Renoir, evocative music from Joseph Kosma and pitch perfect performances from his actors Jean Renoir directs a beautifully composed (many shots are a homage to his father Auguste Renoir) bitter-sweet tale, with mythic references to Pan in the woods, revealing a glowing picture of the natural world.  Yet this is no pretty postcard view but the grounded capturing of a sensual afternoon which is sad, joyful and satirically amusing.

Has there ever in cinema been a more beautiful example of a young woman innocently enjoying herself on a swing? So much hope, uncertainty, exhilaration, and love of life are displayed in the face of Sylvia Bataille.  Her expressiveness is assisted by the great technical triumph of Renoir’s camerawork that’s never manipulative.  I’ll make an analogy with music.  For me the last movement of Schubert’s Great C major Symphony conveys a cosmic sense of all creation dancing.  The swing scenes in Partie de Campagne convey a tender and deep illusion of all life swinging in that moment.  Jean Renoir always seemed to amazingly remove the bridge between art and life.

In the audio lecture, an extra on this BFI Blu Ray, given by Renoir, he talks of the need to destroy the cliché.  He certainly does that throughout Partie de Campagne.  Renoir’s intuitive responses, warmth of direction, consummate skill and his wise, earthy, inner eye produce an unforgettable lyric poetry.

Alan Price©2023