Although Jean Renoir is credited as director of A Day in the Country, his role in the film’s completion became severely limited, even nonexistent, after he left the film toward the end of production in 1935 to begin work on The Lower Depths. That information informs the film’s abrupt ending, for which producer Pierre Braunberger decided to use a title card in place of an intended 15 minutes of footage that was never shot. As such, A Day in the Country necessitates a different sort of orientation to what unfolds during its scant 41-minute runtime; to call it Renoir’s film would ignore the fact that assistant director Jacques Becker shot portions of it while Renoir was absent. Moreover, little evidence suggests that Renoir had any hand in the film’s editing whatsoever, abandoning his adaptation of Guy de Maupassant’s short story for a feature of more political rigor.
Nevertheless, what exists of the film is striking in any number of ways, particularly its mise-en-scène, which features instances of deep focus and camera movement that Renoir would perfect just a few years later in The Rules of the Game. The narrative is a trifle of sorts, with M. Dufour (Gabriello) taking his family and their milk cart into the French countryside for an idyllic afternoon. Along for the ride are his daughter, Henriette (Sylvia Bataille), Madame Dufour (Jeanne Marken) and Henriette’s soon-to-be husband, Anatole (Paul Temps). While there, Henri (Georges Saint-Saens) and Rodolphe (Jacques Borel), two handsome country men, make note of the dairy maids and plot a way to get them onto their boats and into seclusion for the afternoon. The film playfully constructs a series of pedestals for the women, who are seen not just by the young suitors, but a quartet of priests passing by, as well as a handful of adolescent boys who gaze from afar. The composition is pure Renoir, most notably of Henri as he leans on a windowsill, perfectly framed as a portrait of youthful longing, his intensions unclear.
Whether Renoir’s intent or the result of multiple hands looming over the frame, A Day in the Country curiously slides from frivolity and borderline slapstick exchanges into quieter, even ominous moments of contemplation. Once Henri has lured Henriette into seclusion, he forces himself on her, with the camera lowering to ground level to capture Henriette in close-up, as her innocence is compromised. The moment is meant as a direct response to a low-angle shot from earlier in the film, with her swinging joyfully and remarking rather introspectively on the tiny creatures of her natural environs. Her vague desires must be forsaken in order to enter the sexual realm of masculine authority, something the film quite nicely suggests by having her longings so abruptly stripped. The moment is followed by a startling montage of wind blowing through trees, looming clouds, and heavy rainfall, which serve as a segue into a title card and a brief epilogue that’s borderline nonsensical without the missing footage.
While formally notable, particularly in the film’s clear references and indebtedness to impressionist painting, the missing footage renders the narrative problematic at best, inert at worst, mainly because Henriette’s status as an object of desire is reinforced rather than examined or undermined. Her foregrounded innocence is merely fetishized by Renoir’s compositions, so that when Henri forces himself onto her in the tall grass, her close-up of agony is ambiguous because of a peculiar dissolve that then lingers on the couple post embrace or, potentially, post rape. In this moment, A Day in the Country solidifies its interest in coveting female innocence with a preciousness that’s sorrowful, but uninterested in suffering for much more than aesthetic catharsis. As Henriette rows away with Anatole in the film’s epilogue, with Henri watching from the riverbank, there’s an emptiness to the proceedings, which have been deleted of any meaningful humanism, due to such slack characterizations and minimal screen time. Whether these failings are due to production ails or Renoir’s own misgivings is not certain, but as is, A Day in the Country is far more notable as a forsaken blip in the great director’s oeuvre than one of his masterworks.
For what’s considered a "lost film" or sorts, the Criterion Collection has taken considerable care with this transfer. Jean Renoir’s deep-focus cinematography is beautifully transferred, with depth and clarity within nearly ever frame of the film. A few noticeable blips, scratches, and specs appear throughout, but the image is largely free of unintended artifacts. Contrast is strong, particularly in the outdoor sequences, with the pools of natural light carefully calibrated to match the film’s original negative. Likewise, sound is crisp and clean, with dialogue and Joseph Kosma’s memorable score nicely balanced throughout.
Given that A Day in the Country is a film with such a troubled and storied production history, it’s no surprise that the Criterion Collection has provided an excellent assortment of extras in order to contextualize the compromised version presented on this Blu-ray. An introduction by Renoir reveals his original intention to use the film as part of an omnibus program, though he remarks little on his abandonment of the project, instead offering an aside about the importance of plagiarism in art. Renoir scholar Christopher Faulkner does most of the heavy lifting, with an interview and a video essay detailing Renoir’s role in the film’s completion. He explains Renoir’s political leanings at the time of production, his infatuation with actress Sylvia Bataille, and his lack of involvement with the film in any manner once he left to shoot The Lower Depths. Faulkner understands Renoir’s impetus to make the film as an "Oedipal resolution with his father," though that statement appears to be psychological conjecture more than biographically sound. In addition, there are nearly 90 minutes of outtakes and screen tests, which were not released publicly until 1994, to coincide with Renoir’s 100th birthday. Also included is a brief interview with producer Pierre Braunberger, as well as an essay by Gilberto Perez, who examines some of the film’s reflexive intimations.
A radiant transfer of a troubled film, the Criterion Collection offers Jean Renoir’s abandoned short feature with an illuminating assortment of supplements that are essential for all Renoir completists.