In His Father’s Steps: Jean Renoir’s Evolving Relationship with Impressionism in Partie de campagne and Le déjeuner sur l’herbe
Jean Renoir’s films Partie de campagne (filmed in 1936, but not released until 1946) and Le déjeuner sur l’herbe (1959) take imagery and subject matter from 19th Century Impressionist painting, and use these borrowings to both celebrate and reflect in different ways on its sensibility. Elements of Impressionism can be seen in much of Renoir’s work, but the ways in which the landscape is used in these films, the referencing of specific paintings, the choice of settings and costumes, as well as the placing of actors within the frame and within the larger landscape deliberately evokes the Impressionists. Beyond this, Renoir uses camera movement to produce effects similar to those of Impressionist paintings. Renoir also engages with what might be called the ideology of Impressionism, and while the earlier film critiques the movement’s romanticism by contrasting it with the sometimes sad realities of life, the later film champions Impressionism as an alternative to a modern society overwhelmed by technology and a loss of any direct experience with nature.
The Impressionist movement in French painting dates back to the early 1860s, when artists such as Claude Monet, Edouard Manet and Pierre-Auguste Renoir moved out of their studios and began painting outdoors (en plein air). These artists rejected the classical theory of composed and balanced landscapes and sought instead to catch the subjective, fleeting sensations created by gazing at nature’s beauty. Rachel Barnes argues that the Impressionists’ defining characteristic was a “shared fascination with working in the open air and studying the transient effects of light, atmosphere and weather conditions.” 1 Sunlight and shadow were of particular interest, and the Impressionists’ work has been described as an “exploration of the textures and behavior of light under various circumstances.” 2 Along with their formal concerns, they also shared a sensibility, a specific attitude toward art and nature. Their vision of the pastoral was as a place of “an idealized sweetness and peace,” 3 and Pierre-Auguste Renoir believed strongly that “painting should be decorative and optimistic, as he felt there were enough dark and depressing aspects to life.“ 4
Another characteristic of Impressionism was the use of the frame to suggest that the subject of the painting was merely part of a larger landscape. While paintings in the classical style dominant before Impressionism composed their images in relation to the frame so as to contain the whole of their subjects, similar to the visual effect of the theatrical stage, Impressionists sought to capture on canvas an isolated detail of a larger landscape. Film theorist André Bazin argues that “after Manet, and above all Dégas and Renoir, the frame was no longer a stage . . . By interrupting the continuum of reality, the frame [now] suggested what lay beyond it.” 5 This is analogous to the way Jean Renoir employed the camera in his 1930s films, following his subjects with long takes as they wandered and using tracking shots and the mobile frame to suggest off screen space. As Gilberto Perez argues, Renoir “accomplished a liberation from the conventional enclosures similar to that of his father and the other Impressionists.” 6 Or, as Bazin, puts it, in a Renoir film, “the action is not bounded by the screen, but merely passes through it.” 7 It is telling therefore that Renoir opens Partie de campaagne with a celluloid recreation of an Impressionist river portrait with the screen serving as a frame that acknowledges off screen space as the water ripples through the opening credits, while Le déjeuner sur l’herbe, a critique of modernity, begins with a shot of a black-and-white screen where the image is tightly constricted by the television shell that surrounds it.
Opening credits of Partie de campagne (left), opening image of Le déjeurner sur l’herbe (right)
Water was a popular Impressionist subject, 8 an interest shared by Jean Renoir, who claimed “I cannot conceive of cinema without water. There is an inescapable quality in the movement of a film which relates it to the ripple of streams and the flow of rivers.” 9 It is no accident that so many of his films take place in or near water, that all of Partie de campagne and much of Le déjeuner sur l’herbe are set on or next to rivers, or that the earlier film both opens and closes with views of a flowing river. But it is more than a case of shared subject matter; in these films Jean Renoir looks at landscape in a manner similar to the Impressionists. Central to Impressionism was the conception of nature as an object of a subjective gaze. As Perez writes, while “earlier painting was more concerned with the corporeal, the tactile, Impressionist painting represented nature almost purely as sight, a colorful delight of light: a pastoral for the eyes alone, suggesting no activity other than watching.” 6 This view of Impressionism is useful in examining the family’s arrival at the inn in Partie de campagne. As Perez notes, “the camera movement proceeds without any inserted shots of their reactions to the scene such as conventionally accompany a point-of-view shot . . . Here the attribution is kept rather loose, and that family’s perspective on the inn might belong just as well to any bourgeois visitor,” 11 Instead of offering the subjective view of one of the characters, the film offers a generalized view that allows the viewer to contemplate the landscape. This is even more explicit in sequences where the camera’s exploration of the landscape has little or no narrative function. An example of this in Partie de campagne occurs when the rain breaks and the camera retreats down the river, offering a striking view of nature that proceeds and finally ends without any human figures intruding. In Le déjeuner sur l’herbe, there are several instances where the camera lingers on an idyllic field for several moments before a hidden figure stirs and awakes from a nap. At one point, there is an almost Ozu-like series of leisurely, loosely related, static shots of a forest that continues for nearly two minutes before resolving into a long, slow pan, the camera seeming to float above the landscape before resting on the sleeping figure of Étienne Alexis (Paul Meurisse). Perez suggests that “whereas the camera in most films takes its prompting from the dramatic fiction, Renoir establishes his camera . . . as an autonomous narrative agency that conducts its own transaction with the world.” 12 This break in the narrative to appreciate and absorb the landscape, which can be linked to the origins of cinema in what Tom Gunning has called the “cinema of attractions,” 13 is accentuated in these films because of their relationship to Impressionist painting and Renoir’s stylistic trait of not linking the subjective camera gaze to specific characters.
The first in an almost Ozu-like series of contemplative shots, each of which could be the subject of an Impressionist painting.
Renoir evokes Impressionist painting in other ways. The most explicit is in his referencing of specific works. When Henriette (Sylvia Bataille) stands on a swing in Partie de campagne, it is a reimagining of his father’s famous painting “The Swing,” a restaging that is emphasized by having one of the points it is viewed from being a frame within a frame, as two men look out a window of an inn at the young woman. Robert M. Webster argues that here and elsewhere Jean Renoir is interested in the effect Impressionism had on its audience. Using deep focus to place the men in the foreground and keeping Henriette visible through the window in the distance suggests that the young woman, made sexually enticing through her embrace of and identification with nature, is “a projection of their desires.” 14 Which implies that this is what Impressionism (window frame as picture canvas), and perhaps cinema itself (window frame as movie screen), offers to the viewer. There is a similar dynamic in Le déjeuner sur l’herbe. While there is no faithful recreation of the various paintings that share the film’s title, there is a good deal of picnicking on the grass (as there is in Partie de campagne) and a swim taken by Nenette (Catherine Rouvel) is similar in its presentation of coy nudity within nature to that of Édouard Manet’s work of that name. certainly one of the most famous of the Impressionist picnics. Interestingly, this equation of the landscape with female sexuality is also, as in the earlier film, the subject of a character’s gaze.
Pierre-Auguste Renoir – “The Swing” (1876) (left) and Henriette stands on the swing from Partie de campagne“ (right)
Frame within a frame.
Henriette’s audience (1)
Henriette’s audience (2)
Henriette’s audience (3)
Nenette takes a bath while the professor watches.
Beyond restaging or evoking individual paintings, Renoir often catches the look and sensibility of the Impressionists. His most basic strategy in accomplishing this is filming his stories in locations where the Impressionists had painted. Perez suggests that by setting Partie de campagne “in a countryside that Auguste Renoir painted,” he was able to invoke “the Impressionist pastoral in all its enduring appeal.” 15 Le déjeuner sur l’herbe has an explicit connection to the elder Renoir, as it was filmed almost entirely at Les Collettes, the country town where Pierre-Auguste Renoir spent the last 12 years of his life. 16 Jean Renoir writes that setting the film there allowed him “the immense pleasure of filming the olive-trees my father had so often painted (277).” In Partie de campagne, where the story is set in 1860, the time in which the Impressionists were emerging, Renoir also employs period fashion, from the striped shirt and luxuriant moustache of one of the young men to the ladies’ flowered hats. At one point, Henriette and her mother sit on the grass, shaded by a cherry tree and lean toward each other. From the casual pose to the mother’s spotted corsage to the shimmering light and shade on their figures, Renoir creates a perfect Impressionist tableau, one of many in the film. There are fewer of these in Le déjeuner sur l’herbe, partly because of the contemporary 1950s setting and possibly partly because the bright colours used here by cinematographer Georges Leclerc have somehow less to do with Impressionism’s softer palette than the expressive black and white photography of Claude Renoir (Jean’s nephew) in the earlier film. Even so, the later work does offer Impressionist-influenced images and striking compositions, as in a long shot of a landscape featuring swimmers in the middle ground and picnickers in the background, which would have made a fine Impressionist subject.
Perhaps the most interesting stylistic aspect of Renoir’s engagement with Impressionism in these films is his use of camera movement to provide cinematic equivalents to Impressionist characteristics. There had been an earlier attempt at this in the Impressionist film movement that ran from roughly 1918 to 1929, and while Renoir was not part of the movement, he did make a film, La Petite marchande d’allumettes (1928), in its style. 17 The Impressionist filmmakers, like the earlier painters, were interested in capturing fleeting, subjective impressions of reality and the effects of sunlight and shadow, with “the interplay of light and various materials . . . an important concern of Impressionist films.” 18 However, among the “most distinct textural features” of these films were dramatic camera angles and, above all, quick rhythmic editing, 19 neither of which were of much interest to Jean Renoir. Instead, he uses slow tracking shots of the shore taken from a rowboat or catches the effect of sunlight filtered through trees onto a pair of lovers listening to a nightingale to expressively celebrate the landscape and present in cinematic terms the effect of an Impressionist painting. As Webster writes, the “pan shots and fluid editing . . . give the viewer a sense of flow, for they suggest that the elements are joined, that the natural and the human are somehow linked.” 20 An idea which, of course, is at the heart of Impressionism.
Renoir’s examination of Impressionism does not stop with its visual elements, nor is it uncritical. He is also concerned with its ideology, and it is fascinating to see how his attitude toward it changed in the 23 year period between the two films. Renoir’s 1930s films, in particular, do not share the optimism of his father. As Barnes notes, the elder Renoir “felt that painting should be an escape from . . . harsh realities, and on occasion commented with some cynicism on the black view of society depicted by his contemporaries in literature, Zola and Maupassant.” 21 Barnes’ comment gains pertinence when realizing that Jean Renoir filmed adaptations of two of Emile Zola’s novels, Nana (1926) and La bête humaine (1938), and that Partie de campagne itself was based on a story by Guy de Maupassant. The subject matter and setting of Partie de campagne is deliberately typical of Impressionism. Célia Bertin has described the film as featuring “a rowboat, a swing, fishing rods, and a nightingale, in short, all the accompaniments of a day in the country at the end of the nineteenth century,” 22 but these are used at least partly in order to criticize. The bourgeois family that sets out to enjoy that Impressionist delight, a picnic on the grass in a countryside they know nothing about, is ridiculed mercilessly, particularly the Laurel and Hardy-inspired pair of blowhard father and dimwitted prospective son-in-law. Renoir’s intention here in evoking the Impressionists is to critique the bourgeois fantasy of country life that the movement celebrated. Perspective shots are employed to emphasize this point. The countryside as viewed by the Parisian family, looking at the inn from the outside, is contrasted with the locals looking through the window from inside the inn at the alien presence outside picnicking on the grass. Unlike the view of the men gazing out the window, the view from outside is not assigned to any specific character, implicating the viewer and linking the audience point of view to that of the bourgeois interlopers. 23 As Perez writes, “in calling forth the landscape of Impressionism, Jean Renoir gives us not exactly a pastoral, but a film about pastoral.” 11 The effect is to take the Pierre-Auguste Renoir countryside and measure it against reality (as when Henriette’s mother complains about “how messy the country is”), with both affection and a critical eye.
An exception to the ridiculing of the Parisian family is in the treatment of the daughter, Henriette. It is through her character that the film’s ambivalent relationship to Impressionism is expressed. She is sensitive and full of romantic ideals, and this allows her to appreciate nature in a way the other characters seem unable to, which Bazin describes as “the awakening of sensitivity to nature and the emotion that comes with it.” 25 But the opposite side of this sensitivity is a naïveté about the real world that the younger Renoir saw as central to Impressionism. This naiveté is punctured by the rainstorm and subsequent unhappy ending, which “strikingly frustrates pastoral expectations . . . not only for the characters, but for all of us who joined them in the sunny arrival.” 26 The film suggests that life is a lot more difficult than an Impressionist painting, no matter how beautiful it might be.
The mix of celebration and criticism is given a different balance in Le déjeuner sur l’herbe. Renoir gave several interviews as he got older where he lamented how modern technology had removed direct experience from everyday life. In 1954, he told interviewers Jacques Rivette and François Truffaut that “one thing that has happened over the past fifty years is that people have lost use of their senses.” 27 Modern appliances have made life easier, but the result is that “our contact with nature takes place through so many intermediaries that we have almost completely forgotten how to feel natural things directly.” 28 Consequently, the later film identifies science with a lack of passion and knowledge of natural feelings, and contrasts it with characters who are close to the landscape, spontaneous, fun, and young. Modern technology is often portrayed as disruptive and encroaching, as idyllic locations are disturbed by the sights and sounds of airplanes passing overhead or cars driving through. The romanticized view of nature offered by this film is not a critique of Impressionism, but a championing of its values and a condemnation of the modern world. There is no unhappy ending to highlight the discrepancy between reality and Impressionist fantasy. Instead, there is a happy ending achieved when the intellectual hero realizes that “Happiness is perhaps submitting to the natural order.” As Bazin writes, “it is as if Renoir, annoyed or frightened by the sinister character of technocratic society and its standardized notions of happiness, was seeking through . . . an almost farcical fantasy to restore a taste for the joys and charms of life.” 29
Pierre-Auguste Renoir – “Le déjeuner sur l’herbe” (1893)
Partie de campagne and Le déjeuner sur l’herbe are films intimately connected to Impressionist painting. Visually, they constantly remind the viewer of the work of Pierre-Auguste Renoir and his contemporaries, while stylistically the younger Renoir uses camera movement and editing to provide a cinematic equivalent to its effects. While the two films chart the evolution of Jean Renoir’s attitude towards Impressionism’s uncomplicated celebration of nature, they both share an acknowledgement of the sheer pictorial beauty of Impressionist painting and a desire to replicate it, if for differing motives, on screen.
Bachmann, Gideon. “Review: Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe.” Film Quarterly 14.2 (1960): 40-41.
Barnes, Rachel. “Introduction.” Renoir by Renoir. Ed. Rachel Barnes. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990. 6-17.
Bazin, André. Jean Renoir. New York, NY: Dell Publishing, 1974.
Bertin, Célia. Jean Renoir: A Life in Pictures. Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins University Press, 1991.
Bordwell, David. French Impressionist Cinema: Film Culture, Film Theory and Film Style. New York, NY: Arno Press, 1980.
Gunning, Tom. “The Cinema of Attractions: Early Film, Its Spectator and the Avant Garde.” Critical Visions in Film Theory. Eds. Timothy Corrigan, Patricia White, with Meta Mazaj. Boston, MA: Bedfors/St. Martin’s, 2011. 70-76.
Perez, Gilberto. “Landscape and Fiction: Jean Renoir’s Country Excursion.” Hudson Review 42.2 (1989): 237-260.
Renoir, Jean. My Life and My Films. New York, NY: Da Capo Press, 1974.
Rivette, Jacques, and François Truffaut. “Interview with Jean Renoir (1954).” Jean Renoir Interviews. Ed. Bert Cardullo. Jackson, MI: University Press of Mississippi, 2005. 3-48.
Webster, Robert M. “Renoir’s Une Partie de campagne: Film as the Art of Fishing.” The French Review 64.3 (1991): 487-496.
- Rachel Barnes. “Introduction.” Renoir by Renoir. Ed. Rachel Barnes. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990. 6. ↩
- David Bordwell. French Impressionist Cinema: Film Culture, Film Theory and Film Style. New York, NY: Arno Press, 1980, 163. ↩
- Perez, Gilberto. “Landscape and Fiction: Jean Renoir’s Country Excursion.” Hudson Review 42.2 (1989): 243 ↩
- Barnes, op cit, 17) ↩
- André Bazin. Jean Renoir. New York, NY: Dell Publishing, 1974, 108. ↩
- Perez, op cit, 244. ↩
- Ibid, 244. ↩
- Barnes, op cit, 8 ↩
- Jean Renoir. My Life and My Films. New York, NY: Da Capo Press, 1974, 67. ↩
- Perez, op cit, 244. ↩
- Ibid, 245. ↩
- Ibid, 251. ↩
- Tom Gunning. “The Cinema of Attractions: Early Film, Its Spectator and the Avant Garde.” Critical Visions in Film Theory. Eds. Timothy Corrigan, Patricia White, with Meta Mazaj. Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2011. 70-76. ↩
- Robert M. Webster. “Renoir’s Une Partie de campagne: Film as the Art of Fishing.” The French Review 64.3 (1991): 490. ↩
- Perez, op cit, 243. ↩
- Gideon Bachmann. “Review: Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe.” Film Quarterly 14.2 (1960): 40 ↩
- Bordwell, op cit, 12. ↩
- Ibid, 166. ↩
- Ibid, 196. ↩
- Webster, op cit, 489. ↩
- Barnes, op cit, 17. ↩
- Célia Bertin. Jean Renoir: A Life in Pictures. Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins University Press, 1991, 126. ↩
- Perez, op cit, 246. ↩
- Ibid, 245. ↩
- Bazin, op cit, 298 ↩
- Perez, op cit, 256. ↩
- Jacques Rivette and François Truffaut. “Interview with Jean Renoir (1954).” Jean Renoir Interviews. Ed. Bert Cardullo. Jackson, MI: University Press of Mississippi, 2005, 45. ↩
- Ibid, 45. ↩
- Bazin, op cit, 298. ↩