If the Impressionist painters were to make a movie, what would it be like? A Sunday in the Country (1984) could very well be an exemplar. French director Bertrand Tavernier used the camera as a paintbrush to tell his story, while the cast bring to life the human pathos that are deeper than a painting on the wall could convey.
Monsieur Ladmiral is an elderly artist living in an idyllic country house on the outskirt of Paris. The setting is pre-WWI. M. Ladmiral is a widower, his daily routines assisted by a lived-in, indispensable housekeeper called Mercédès (Monique Chaumette). His home is cozy with classic charm, the adjacent studio, inspiring. The camera leads us to see every details of M. Ladmiral’s house and moves fluidly from far to close-in on the artist’s workplace, a quiet haven and a treasure trove of memories and life works. With his colours, Ladmiral attempts to capture traces of youth and life.
M. Ladmiral’s son Gonzague (Michel Aumont) and his wife Marie-Thérèse (Genevieve Mnich), together with their three children, come visit him from Paris every Sunday, but not frequent enough still. His two grandsons, Emile (Thomas Duvall) and Lucien (Quentin Ogler), add lively sparks to his serene environs, while little Mereille (Katia Wostrikoff) is simply adorable.
No matter how much Gonzague tries to give him, grandchildren and his family’s frequent visits, the son knows he’s a disappointment to his father. Deep in M. Ladmiral’s heart, he longs to see his daughter Irène (Sabine Azéma), who seldom visits. Irène is single, exuberant, fearlessly independent and cheerful, or at least, on the surface. She drives an automobile, a new invention. “Look at your sister Irene,” Ladmiral tells Gonzague. “She forges ahead.” Then after a beat, “you don’t.” Nice going, Dad.
The pace of the film is leisurely, taking its time for viewers to hear (or read the subtitle of) every single dialogue, capture every nuance, and observe every item in the mise en scène. Life is too precious to hurry by. As well, we get to appreciate the humour, but often as guise to underlying relational tensions.
Tavernier won Best Director at Cannes Film Festival in 1985 with A Sunday in the Country, as well as the César Award for his adapted screenplay. The film also saw Azéma who plays daughter Irene won the Best Actress César Award and Bruno de Keyzer for Best Cinematography.
The film is an adaptation from the French novel by Pierre Bost entitled “Monsieur Ladmiral va bientôt mourir”, translated in English: “Mr. Ladmiral will die soon”. Have to say, the movie title is much more appealing. One note though, be patient with the 1:40 min. of credits rolling at the beginning with just white words on black background without image. You’re looking into the mind of an old man. While the overall mood is warm and amusing, the undercurrents of disappointment, mortality, and separation gently flow throughout the film.
On that Sunday as Gonzague and his family are visiting, Irene drops in unannounced in her automobile. Free-spirited Irene is a fresh breeze to the hot countryside, her automobile a progressive symbol for everyone to admire. She charms with her energetic presence and spontaneous delights. But as viewers, we are privy to her psyche and anxiety when she’s alone. Tavernier deals with the past and the present seamlessly, melding them as if showing us memories are natural extension of our present self, so’s our imagination. As she stands by the window looking out to the lawn, we see Irene’s flashback of her mother saying, “When will you stop asking so much of life, Irene?”
Irene’s visit is short, albeit one that leaves a significant impact on her father. She takes him on a ride in her automobile to a guinguette for a drink and a dance, an episode that’s bound to be indelible in M. Ladmiral’s last memories. Guinguettes were open-air taverns in the outskirts of Paris where people would come on Sundays to have drinks and casual meals, listen to music, and dance. In the style of Renoir’s Bal du moulin de la Galette, Tavernier paints a beautiful Impressionist movie moment in this scene:
During the memorable father-daughter chat at the guinguette, M. Ladmiral talks about his own style, and admits that he’s a traditionalist unable to catch up with the changes other painters have brought about. Unable or unwilling, no matter, he’s at least honest to himself in painting the way he does, he tells Irene. In tearing eyes, daughter looks fondly at her father and asks him to dance with her.
Irene has to leave right after she drives her father home from the guinguette, upon receiving an upsetting telephone call. Later that evening, Gonzague and his family have to catch the late train back to Paris as well. After seeing them off, M. Ladmiral walks back home from the train station alone. For an old man, every goodbye could be the last.
But the final scene appears to turn the tide. M. Ladmiral goes into his studio, takes down the painting he’s been working on, a still-life subject he’s painted numerous times before and in a style he’s been following all his life. He replaces it with a blank canvas on the easel, sits down, and looks at it ponderously. Like his son’s, his life, too, has been a disappointment to himself. What M. Ladmiral is thinking staring into a blank canvas at that moment is up to anyone’s interpretation. What I see is a slight, nuanced smile on his face. Every blank canvas is a fresh start no matter how old you are.
~ ~ ~ ~ Ripples
This film review is a participation of the 6th Paris in July event at
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