Film Reviews

Partie de Campagne (1946) – Blu-ray Review

New from the BFI is a new restoration of the 1946 Jean Renoir film Partie de Campagne. Restored in 2K and presented in High-Definition academy ratio, the film was actually shot in the summer of 1936, and looks superb for its age, complemented, as it is, by a fine stereo soundtrack. Considered one the finest unfinished films ever made, it tells of Monsieur Dufour (André Gabriello), a shop owner taking his family for a day in the countryside.

Stopping for lunch at a roadside diner (the owner played by the director), they encounter two young men, Henri (Georges D’Arnoux) and Rodolphe (Jacques B. Brunius). Between them, the men take an interest in Dufour’s daughter, Henriette (Sylvia Bataille) and wife (Jane Marken). Working to get the women separated from their family, Henri manages to get Henriette to accompany him on a short rowing trip, while Rodolphe takes Madame Dufour, while they divert Dufour and his assistant Anatole (Paul Temps) by lending them fishing equipment.

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In the course of the trip, Henri seduces the initially reluctant Henriette. Years later Henriette visits the area with her now-husband Anatole, encountering Henri; emotionally she recounts their time together, leaving with her husband as Henri hides. This is a sweeter natured film than its synopsis suggests, and packs a lot into its 40-minute running time. Some small unfinished elements are obvious, as we never see our protagonists return from their trip after the weather turns, but it does hang together as a story.

Extras kick-off with a commentary from Philip Kemp, noted film historian and lecturer. This is not a new track, as it was recorded in 2003. He describes this as the most perfect unfinished film ever made, though he notes that later in life Renoir claims it was complete. He talks of the differences in tone between Guy de Maupassant’s book and this film, though noting it is faithful in plot. Put simply, he feels that Renoir’s left-wing background makes it more class-conscious and, therefore, more scornful of the middle-class pretentions of the main family.

© 1946 BFI.

He takes us through all of the family members of Renoir that were involved here, including his then-partner and their roles in making this film. It is a little dry, as it does feel like Kemp is reading from a script. Renoir claimed it was improvised as a film, though Kemp notes that in the 1990s this was disproved by the discovery of over one hundred cans of rushes, tests, and outtakes – the latter with evidence of Renoir correcting actors deviating from the script. So, despite the relatively sobriety of the track, it is full of stories and facts.

Renoir washed his hands of this project on Aug 15th, as he was due to go to his next picture. We get some of the history of the actors and actresses involved. It is particularly good on themes and motifs and how they fit into Renoir’s whole career. There is also some discussion of shot duration and choice, and the organic feel this engenders. Finally, we get the story of the post-war release of the film after the defeat of the Nazis, who had banned his work, and discussion of the beautiful score, and how it transformed reaction to the film. A fine track, performing wonders in such a short running time.

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The next bonus feature is nine minutes of screen tests. This is a selection from the shoot, assembled by Claudine Kaufmann. Without sound, it seems to be evaluating the actors, but feel like something of a camera test as well, seeing how they look outside in natural light and whether the make-up works. They could be auditions, but they do not feel like it. It is fine for what it is and adds to the historical document feel of the release, engendered by the outtakes.

Next up is an extra compiled in 1994 to mark one hundred years since Renoir’s birth. ‘Un tournage à la campagne‘ (literally ‘A Film shoot in the country’) is an 89-minute selection from the outtakes held at La Cinémathèque Française and complied by filmmaker Alain Fleischer. It covers June 27th to August 15th, 1936, and was it deposited at the museum in April 1962. It is like watching a home movie, so whilst a little aimless (particularly at over double the running time of the film itself), it still feels like seeing history we should not be able to see and, as such, feels like a privilege.

© 1946 BFI.

Finally, we get a Jean Renoir Lecture at the BFI from 1963. This is an audio recording of a lecture and Q&A given by Jean Renoir at the National Film Theatre. This plays over the outtakes (almost to its exact length, and we have no idea if that is a coincidence or an editing choice). The stereo soundtrack on it is a little quiet, and it could do with a subtitle track. Renoir gives a long talk about his background and what he wanted to achieve with his films. He talks also about the technology of the era. Much of this is about the film in question. Honestly, the mixture of sound mix/age of the recording, and the accent makes this quite a tough listen, though we tuned into it over time. With extra volume and perseverance, it will be wonderful for fans, and, we must stress, the quality of his insights grow over the lecture’s running time, so it does warm-up considerably.

The standard booklet is around 21 pages this time – a little shorter than, say, Eureka‘s average, but it does contain more than the standard two pieces of writing. This bonus is limited to the first pressing of 2,000 copies. The first essay from Barry Nevin (a noted author on French filmmakers) is entitled ‘From Magnificent Torso to Perfectly Finished Work’. This puts the film into perspective of the period in which it was filmed. Complementing the commentary in noting the left-wing influences, he observes the relevance of the victory of the Popular Front in 1936, and the reforms that led to the 40-hour working week and collective bargaining rights being put into law. That said, he spends a lot of time talking about how remote from the worries of pre-war France this work was, set, as it was in 1860, and working as a nostalgic project for the director who could think of the France in which he grew up.

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Nevin talks of the qualities inherent to the work as well as the issues that led to it being left unreleased for a decade. He sums up that by the time of release, the darkness of the events that had followed the making of the film, left it as a bright reminder of better times. A decent piece of writing. The second essay is ‘Notes on Maupassant and the Cinema’ by Pasquale Iannone (lecturer of Film Studies at Edinburgh University) and, predictably, is about the author of the short story. Short, but still of interest in discussing his lasting – and wide – appeal. Finally, Philip Kemp has written about the director himself; he does well to sum up the man’s work in a mere two short pages of writing. The rounds of a decent set for a release that will be essential only to fans of Renoir or French cinema completists. For all others, it will be an enjoyable enough curio, and a warm, engaging watch.

Partie de Campagne is out now on Blu-ray from the BFI.

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