Bertrand Tavernier's "A Sunday in the Country" is a glistening, ornately constructed movie in which everything's of a piece. Dependent less on narrative than on formal unities and the precise orchestration of subtle emotions, the movie gently evokes the tristesse of lost youth and artistic failure.
As the title implies, the movie takes place on a Sunday early in this century in which an elderly painter, Monsieur Ladmiral (Louis Ducreux) is visited by his family at his rustic estate. First to arrive, toting a wife and three children, is his son Gonzague (Michel Aumont), who gave up painting for the life of a prosperous burgher. Obsessed with his art, Ladmiral barely tolerates his sellout progeny -- he even falls asleep in the middle of his conversation.
Ladmiral lights up when his daughter, Irene (Sabine Azema), arrives unexpectedly in her noisy newfangled automobile. A vivid, glittery figure in a white gown, Irene is everything Ladmiral has not been in his own life -- reckless, impulsive, insanely romantic, hungry for life. Although an artist, Ladmiral has followed conventionality as slavishly as his son -- a well-to-do painter of still lifes and landscapes in the classical manner, he's been left behind by the Ce'zannes, Monets and van Goghs who revolutionized painting in the late 19th century. "I saw originality in the work of others," Ladmiral tells his daughter. "Perhaps I lacked courage."
The inherent poignancy of this scene, which takes place in an outdoor dance hall, resonates within "A Sunday in the Country's" backstage history. The movie is based on a novel by Pierre Bost, who, along with his screenwriting partner, Jean Aurenche, was responsible for such "Tradition of Quality" films of the '40s and '50s as "Douce," "Gervaise" and "Forbidden Games." Like Ladmiral, Bost was left behind when the French New Wave took center stage, as directors like Truffaut and Godard, who as critics had made a career out of trashing the Tradition of Quality, swept into prominence in the '60s. Reclaiming these artists has been part of Tavernier's continuing project (he hired Bost and Aurenche to write his first feature, "The Clockmaker"). In this light, "A Sunday in the Country" leaps past the era of the Impressionists into the present.
What's extraordinary about "A Sunday in the Country" is the way Tavernier, with a few strokes, limns nuanced, authentic characters (it would have been much easier, and more shallow, merely to tell the story through Ladmiral's eyes). Aumont's portrait of a snouty, censorious porker chafing under his stiff celluloid collar is comical -- you scoff along with his father -- but when he explains that he abandoned art to avoid being either a rival or an epigone of his father, you're touched by him. Azema plays the antique-dealer daughter with a brassy crassness, pawing over a shawl that Ladmiral has carefully arranged for a still life (he finds his art, he says, in the folds of a cloth); but her rich, throaty laugh and eye-darting coquetry are so winsome, you can't help joining her father in indulging her.
Ducreux brings a stage actor's resources to his role as Ladmiral. Ducreux's richly lined face, dominated by his wide, soft eyes and high-domed forehead, recalls the engaging American actor Richard Farnsworth; he's a lovable grandpa, digressing about Roman history and the difference between baking (something one must learn) and roasting (an art you're born with). But as he sucks in his stomach before the mirror and pokes at his pectorals, he's vain as well; and he can be crotchety and irritable toward his son and grandchildren. Ducreux's great triumph is to play Ladmiral as a lost soul without patronizing or disparaging him; he may be a failure, but he never forgets his own muted integrity.
As these characters wind their way through Ladmiral's luxuriously appointed manor house and around its capacious back yard (which Ladmiral has painted a hundred times), Tavernier follows them with a seamless, legato camera. His technique makes Ladmiral's world seem tiny, self-contained, distant from the world outside that has barreled past him. And the score of Faure' chamber music, with its rich, minor-key mournfulness, has something of the wintry, desperate quality of Beethoven's last quartets. The carefully composed photography of the movie glows with the phosphorescence of decay, the luminosity of memory. In the movie's last scene, as Ladmiral removes his still-life sketch from his easel and replaces it with a blank canvas, "A Sunday in the Country" leaves you devastated with the horror and promise of death. "A Sunday in the Country," opening today at the Outer Circle and K-B Janus, is rated G.