"Une Partie de Campagne" has been described as the greatest movie ever not finished, but Renoir's 1936 masterpiece feels "almost" finished. Drawing on a simple Maupassant story, it follows a Parisian family to the country for a picnic; during the afternoon, as the fat domineering father and the idiot son-in-law sleep off their lunch and then cack-handedly try their luck at fishing, the wife and daughter go off with two local lads on the make. The daughter is seduced; we're never sure of the wife. In a tailpiece, we see the local lad going back to the same spot, meeting the girl again with her scrofulous husband. Despite the casual nature of their encounter, neither of them has ever forgotten it, and both have always wondered what might have been.... The cut to this is abrupt, which is where the "unfinished" bit comes in, but it's also hard to see what more Renoir needed to say. There are various theories about this; one is that this was intended as part of a portmanteau movie of Maupassant stories, another is that bad weather stopped filming. The DVD extras do nothing to enlighten us.
Though on one level a very well scripted "slice of life", there is something magical about the movie, and when you get to the abrupt ending, it feels like being woken up in the middle of a dream. The opening explores the relationships between the members of the family, the attitudes of the country folk to the city folk, the naivety of the city folk about the country, the willingness of the country folk to exploit this. The camera is almost static, the emphasis on dialogue.
Then the women decide to go on the swings, and something extraordinary happens. They become delirious with happiness, and the camera does too, plunging and soaring, cutting to shots of the birds and the trees. The sequence seems to last for an eternity, but you never want it to end. Sylvia Bataille as the daughter Henriette sustains it remarkably.
This is the moment when Nature takes its course, Henriette shows her stocking tops, and lust - or love as it turns out - can find a way against the idyllic backdrop of the river. All Renoir's natural paganism is expressed in pure poetry.
However, I give this only 3 stars for the shoddy package that the British Film Institute has issued. A full-price DVD for a 40-minute film is pushing it, and at the very least I would expect some significant and informative extras. But the out-takes and screen-tests are a jumble, there is little in the way of commentary, the biography of the director is perfunctory, and I have seen better prints of the movie in the cinema. This presentation is unworthy of Renoir and the film, and is a typical example of the crass commercialism which has overtaken the BFI.
The 10-Disk box set "BFI 75" might be a better way to get hold of this, although that too is marred by some strange choices for supposedly classic movies (The Innocents? Francois Ozon offcuts?)
In an ideal world someone would release this as a double with Renoir's later (1959) masterpiece, "Dejeuner sur l'Herbe".