April 6, 2021

Regret: Bertrand Tavernier's "A Sunday in the Country"

 


On a lovely Sunday morning in 1912, the elderly artist Monsieur Ladmiral prepares for a visit from his son and family. We see that M. Ladmiral must be a successful painter: his house in a country setting near Paris is large and beautiful, his studio situated in the garden is spacious and elegant. It is evident from the paintings hanging in the house and studio that he is a very traditional painter, conservative in style; the upheavals in art of the late 19th century passed him by. 

The sense of life not being fully lived pervades this poignant film. Ladmiral's reserved middle-aged son Gonzague visits regularly, bringing his straight-laced wife and three children. At one point Gonzague wonders if he should have pursued painting when he was young; but perhaps he wouldn't be as good as his father, or, he would compete with him. Ladmiral also seems a bit disappointed in his son, a feeling that is thrown into vivid contrast with the unexpected arrival, via motor car, of his beloved daughter Irene. We can see that he adores her brilliant free spirit, her unconventionality, her need to liven things up. She is the only one whose opinion about his work he seeks, and fears. In the studio, she disparages a painting in process on the easel as yet another "corner of the studio" painting; how dull, how ordinary.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Dance at the Moulin de la Galette, 1876

Then she whisks her beloved father away in the motor, to a café near a river, where there is dancing. For me this scene is the heart of the film, where Tavernier calls up the spirit of Renoir. And here is where father and daughter have a candid talk about his work. Irene says to him, pointing to the dancers, "That's what you should have painted". His response is beautifully thoughtful, and relevant, I believe, to choices all artists make: 

I painted the way I was taught. I believed my teachers: to respect the traditional rules, maybe a bit too much. I saw originality in others' work. Cézanne's major exhibition in '96 or '97 was interesting, but I thought "Where can that lead me", like van Gogh's work. I'd singled him out. I spent a summer painting in Arles. Perhaps I lacked courage. Some years ago, I considered changing my style. I thought about it seriously, but it hurt your mother that I was still groping at that age. I'd just been decorated; our future was assured. If I'd imitated what was original in other painters––Monet, Caillebotte, Renoir––I'd have been even less original. I'd have lost my own special melody; at least it was mine. I painted as I felt, with honesty. If I didn't achieve more, I at least glimpsed what I could have done. 

Then he recounts his dream about Moses, who saw the Promised Land, so could die without regret. Irene listens to his passionate, yet hesitant words with attentive love. 



When all his guests have gone, M. Ladmiral sits alone in the studio. Although his talk with Irene made it sound as though he had no regrets, the expression on his face––he is sensitively portrayed by Louis Ducreux––reveals uncertainty. He removes the unfinished painting of the studio corner from the easel and turns it against the wall. He places a smaller blank canvas on the easel, which he turns so he can look at it from the studio couch. The camera lingers on his hands, moving as though seeking answers. This scene was so touching, even heartbreaking. Although he spoke of having no regrets, he seems full of self-doubt.

I loved this about A Sunday in the Country: it wasn't only sensitive to family relations, but also astute in its portrayal of an artist's questioning of their work. I wonder if artists reading this have felt that. I certainly have: that sudden crushing sense of bewilderment, the "what am I doing?", the ground sliding out from under my feet. We go on, as best as we know how. 


4 comments:

  1. That's beautifully written Altoon! Now I want to see the film, and I'll put it in my queue. It's true we're influenced by our painting teachers. Our individuality can't help but come through in each of our own unique personalities. One has to be oneself ...and as the saying goes, "Everybody else is already taken". 😀

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    1. Thanks for this comment, Kim. I sometimes think that if I'd gone to Hunter College, where the teachers were abstractionists, rather than Brooklyn, if I'd been a different painter.

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    2. "you should" can be cruel words, especially to an artist.
      I relate to the Father/daughter relationship you describe, and now I want to see the movie, too.

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  2. Carol Samuelsen GrayApril 8, 2021 at 8:26 AM

    've seen the film 3 times, the last through Netflix. Artists often worry if their work is 'in' or maybe too 'in'. I just go back to doing what I love most, plein air painting.

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