Never was a film so aptly titled as A Sunday in the Country. The only way to make it more accurate would be to call it “Very Little Happens on a Sunday in the Country.” Or perhaps “An Old Man’s Family Visits Him in the Country and Nothing Much Happens.” As you might surmise from my snark, A Sunday in the Country is a film in which the plot is inconsequential. It isn’t about what is happening on screen but rather the mood it evokes, and the emotions it characters are feeling.
The old man is Monsieur Admiral (Louis Ducreux), a painter who lives a lonely life on a country estate in France circa 1912. His only companion is his servant Mercedes (Monique Chaumette). The narrator (Bertrand Tavernier, who also directed) tells us that he fears to quarrel with her because he thinks she would leave him if he did and he could not survive without her. But also that he doesn’t really think this because she is devoted to him, but this is one of life’s anxieties. It is a film filled with little anxieties.
Monsieur Admiral’s eldest child, Gonzague (Michel Aumont), visits every Sunday along with his wife Marie-Thérèse (Geneviève Mnich) and three children. Together, they eat lunch together, sit in the garden, and talk amicably. The children run and play. The daughter climbs a tree and cannot get out. Monsieur Admiral talks about his paintings and shows off some of them.
He’s had some success and lives comfortably, but he can’t help but think he’s missed out. His paintings fall under the Impressionist umbrella but the time for the Impressionists has come and gone. At one point, he says dejectedly that he was only following the instructions of his teachers. But maybe he should have been bolder.
It is a lovely Sunday full of peace and melancholy. His daughter Irène (Sabine Azéma) shows up like a thunderstorm. She is a slight agent of chaos – young, beautiful, and full of energy. She arrives in her own car, lifts the children up with delight, and talks nonstop. Monsieur Admiral clearly loves the most. A notion Gonzague fully understands and is disheartened by but will never mention. He’ll continue to come every Sunday because he loves his father deeply. Irene only shows up now and again yet still retains the bulk of Monsieur Admiral’s affections.
She takes him for a ride in her car. They have tea at the neighboring bistro. He talks about his art and aches with disappointment over his life. The narrator tells us he wonders if she’s taken a lover, but will never ask. She finds some old clothes of her mother’s in the attic and declares she can sell them easily at her shop in Paris. Gonzague fusses that she will make money on their mother’s things but isn’t giving their father anything for them.
Late in the film, she gets a call and rushes away as fast as she came. Monsieur Admiral is clearly disappointed. Gonzague tries to cheer him up by showing off his daughter’s drawing, but he pays no attention. He misses the child who is leaving, but cannot enjoy the one who stays. It is a moment of painstaking heartbreak.
This is the film. A family spending time together on a Sunday afternoon. Speaking cheerfully to one another but each secretly holding on to disappointment.
It is beautifully shot. Some scenes look like an Impressionistic painting. The acting is understated and refined. It is a slow film. One that will surely be frustrating for many viewers. But if you are able to get on its wavelength and spend time with these characters, I think you’ll find something wonderful. Roger Ebert included it in his Great Movies list. I wasn’t able to connect to it as well as he did. It’s a lovely film, but it was hard to keep myself focused.
Kino Lorber presents A Sunday in the Country with a 1080p transfer and an aspect ratio of 1.68:1. Extras include a new audio commentary by director Bertrand Tavernier and trailers for other Kino Lorber films.