The French filmmaker Bertrand Tavernier passed away last week, which didn’t raise many eyebrows among my co-workers. I haven’t really thought about him in a long time; the last movie he made that I saw was a Tommy Lee Jones thriller, In the Electric Mist (2009). But I happened to have one of the director’s best-loved films available, so the time was right to watch A Sunday in the Country. It transported me to a rural France in 1912 and I never wanted to leave that place.
A painter in his 70s
The story takes place in the summer of that year. We meet Monsieur Ladmiral (Louis Ducreux), a painter in his 70s who lives alone in a rural mansion together with his servant Mercedes (Monique Chaumette). Nothing has changed since his wife died. Every Sunday he receives his son Gonzague (Michel Aumont), his wife Marie-Thérèse (Geneviève Mnich) and their children, two boisterous young sons and a girl, for a day of leisure together.
This Sunday, there’s an additional guest: Irène (Sabine Azéma), Gonzague’s younger sister. She rarely visits her father and is very different from her brother, an unmarried, disorganized and emotional woman who values freedom far more than the rest of her family.
Inspired by Jean Renoir
This is a moment in time captured by the filmmakers for an hour and a half. The director and his ex-wife Colo Tavernier adapted Pierre Bost’s novel, but must have been equally inspired by Jean Renoir’s classic 1936 film A Day in the Country, which followed a love affair over a summer afternoon on the banks of the Seine. This film takes place a few decades later, but the atmosphere has similarities with Renoir’s film.
We’re obviously in the countryside, but it’s far from rural poverty. Ladmiral lives in a wonderful mansion and has a studio on the property. He’s done well for himself; we learn later in the film that he has received an order of merit from the government. Gonzague and Irène are also successful in the sense that money is no concern; the former has a perfect little family and the latter comes across as a woman who thoroughly enjoys life. But are these people happy? Dissatisfied might be the best way to describe them. Over the course of this relaxed Sunday, as they enjoy lunch with wine, rhubarb cake with coffee, the odd nap, games in the garden, a bit of dancing and a confrontation or two, we realize that Ladmiral has come to understand that he’ll never be remembered as a great artist, regardless of that merit; he knows now that his failure to become a part of the Impressionist movement when it began a few decades ago has doomed him. He may be over 70, but his lack of artistic confidence still haunts him. He’s also unhappy with his children, disappointed in Gonzague’s failure to amount to much and worried about Irène’s love affairs, dramatic encounters that never result in anything lasting or worthwhile.
The melancholy is visible in them both; the latter gives us the impression that she’s constantly performing, like an actress, and the former seems to go through the motions as a husband and father. The whole movie looks like an Impressionist painting at times; beautifully and meticulously photographed by Bruno de Keyzer, all the details of rural France in the summer enrich this seductive portrait, accompanied by Gabriel Fauré’s classical music.
One’s drawn into this film because of the appealing way it talks to us. At the center of all this beauty on display is Ladmiral, nicely played by Ducreux, who shows us that in spite of all the riches in his life there is still a desire to change things. That’s not a bad thing.
A Sunday in the Country 1984-France. 94 min. Color. Produced and directed by Bertrand Tavernier. Screenplay: Bertrand Tavernier, Colo Tavernier. Novel: Pierre Bost. Cinematography: Bruno de Keyzer. Cast: Louis Ducreux (Ladmiral), Sabine Azéma (Irène), Michel Aumont (Gonzague), Geneviève Mnich, Monique Chaumette, Claude Winter.
Trivia: Original title: Un dimanche à la campagne.
Cannes: Best Director.
Last word: “Working in English is totally different to working in French. When Jane Birkin was acting in English she was more restrained and less open, more secret than when she was acting in French. After ‘A Sunday in the Country’ I was offered to make films about all the impressionist painters, but always with a screenplay in English and I always said no. I don’t want to do the life of a French character in English.” (Tavernier, The Guardian)