Jean Renoir is one of those towering figures of world cinema. The only film I had seen of his is Boudu Saved from Drowning (1932), which I love, but which I do not think is entirely representative of his broader body of work. I was luck enough to catch A Day in the Country (1936) on the big screen at Arc Cinema recently, as part of a program of the short films which were featured in the most recent Sight & Sound poll.
The film is a gentle look at the societal mores and conventions of the time, a comedy of manners of sorts. A group of Parisians funnily enough spend a day in the country, focused around drinking, eating, sleeping, rowboats and a little fishing. The most engaging aspect of the film is when it contrasts the deeply engrained attitudes and desires of an urban mindset with those of a rural one. Two young local men who are lazing about at the country inn decide that they will attempt to seduce Henriette and her mother, whilst the other men are off tending to their fishing rods. Sylvia Bataille, who plays Henriette, gives the best performance in the film, as a young naive woman with an utterly bland fiancé.
Apparently the film is actually unfinished, though you cannot really tell. In terms of running time, it is a long short film, so perhaps it was originally envisaged as a feature film. What is here though is beautifully shot, even the simplest of images, such as the women enjoying their time on the swings, are a joy to look at. Whilst it is a very different film to Boudu Saved from Drowning you can see Renoir’s ability as a humour stylist as the script has a fair bit of humour in it. The film got a lot of laughs in the crowd I saw it with and the comedy is for the most part very successful, even today. Indeed the dialogue of the script is one of the film’s real achievements, full of double entendres, there are numerous layers to absolutely every line.
A Day in the Country is a sumptuously shot, if gentle, look at a specific time and place. It perfectly illustrates many of the societal constraints that dominated that time and place, which I am glad are not a part of my life. It is engaging, even if the connection between characters is not established enough to support the emotional dénouement that is aimed for.
Verdict: Stubby of Reschs
I remember quite a while ago, when I was first beginning to explore the world of classic cinema, I had this notion that comedy was, more than other genres, fundamentally connected to the time it was made. By that I meant that all the comedies I liked at that point were less than 20 years old, and I felt that without the societal connectedness of what was made in the silent years and immediately after, I would not find them amusing. I remember watching Jean Renoir’s Boudu Saved from Drowning and having these thoughts really blown out of the water. Attempting to tidy up the files on my computer, I came across this review I wrote of it at the time. It is pretty raw, this was just when I was starting up the blog, but hopefully it is still worth a read.
I found Jean Renoir’s Boudu Saved From Drowning (1932) really quite funny, a lot funnier than most of the ‘comedies’ I have been subjected to the past few years. The story is exceptionally simple. Man saves bum from drowning himself, invites bum to stay in his house, chaotic hijinks ensue. That’s about it really, but this is a comedy after all, not an Iñárritu film and the plot is serviceable enough. Some of the early, outdoor scenes shot by Renoir are quite beautifully rendered. This got me thinking about comedy films today and how little effort is (seemingly) put into making the films beautiful ones. There is a perception that comedic films cannot be artistic or ‘worthy’ ones, a perception that judging by this film did not exist in the 1930s. Jokes in this film take on a number of forms; there is slapstick, witty punchlines, amusing social comments and a hell of a lot of sexual innuendo. The only time that the film fell a bit flat for me was when there was an over-reliance during the middle section on slapstick, with Boudu’s rudeness and stupidity becoming increasingly over-the-top (and the character risked becoming an oafish Homer Simpson style caricature). However this period of the film also provided what is probably its most hilarious sequence when Boudu tries to clean his hands of the stubborn shoe polish he has gotten all over them.
But if Boudu is a simply drawn character then the character of Monsieur Lastingois is a wonderfully complex one. Initially I thought him seedy – his affair is exposed very early on, then (being a struggling student with a 2nd hand book addiction) my opinion of him skyrocketed when he allows a student to have two books from his store free, exclaiming “your name is youth.” And obviously the bravery he shows in rescuing Boudu whilst everyone else watches on makes him somewhat of a hero. All the while though he is carrying on his affair and using a telescope to check out the physical attributes of women as they walk by his window. Modern comedies could again learn something from this film and actually take the time to create interesting characters rather than the cardboard cut-outs we are generally provided with. He is also endlessly forgiving of Boudu for his ungratefulness, rudeness and even the seduction of his wife. In another amusing scene, the only time he tries to remove Boudu from his home is when he perpetrates the heinous crime of spitting in a prized volume of Balzac. There is heart to go with the humour here as well. See the reactions of the main characters to Boudu’s final act of defiance; or the heart-rending early scene where our bum has lost his dog and no one will assist him in the search, but then they all (including two police officers) jump to help an attractive upper class lady caught in the same predicament.
A sublime film with a distinctive charm whose shortcomings in story and an at times overly simplistic protagonist are more than surpassed by a great variety of humour, beautiful cinematography and some of the other characters being fantastic. I loved a vast majority of this film more than many others I can recall. If, like I did you struggle to believe a film made well over 70 years ago could make you chuckle, then I highly suggest you check this out.
Verdict: Pint of Kilkenny
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