10 great films set in the French countryside

From the idyllic to the nightmarish: as Jean Renoir’s Partie de campagne arrives on Blu-ray, we head into rural France to sample some of the best of its many starring roles.

17 August 2023

By Steph Green

Partie de campagne (1936)

When one thinks of the French countryside, the scene that floats serenely to mind tends to be peaceful and arcadian: fields of lavender, sleepy markets selling saucisson, vineyards flanked by limestone houses, green window-shutters laden with ivy, ladles of pot-au-feu. 

Much of the country’s cinematic output has made use of this setting, and outsiders have travelled here to make use of its beauty. But often, it is subverted. There are just as many films that have posited the French countryside as a site of solitude, hardship or cruelty, quite unlike Jean Renoir’s delightful Partie de campagne (1936), in which one summer afternoon on the grassy banks of the Seine holds escapist possibilities for a Parisian family.

Unlike the veritable potpourri of tropes found in works like Lasse Hallström’s Chocolat (2000), many of these films pick countryside settings – the grassy, fresh expanse of Normandy plains, the manicured fields of Burgundy wine country, the Loire Valley’s cradle of endless châteaux – and then take a magnifying glass to peer at the cracks. Unreliable farmland, the cliques of small towns, repressed desires with no outlet, and loneliness are just some of the plagues afflicted on to characters.

But among all this: beauty, love and creativity. Partie de campagne was proof that even with an unfinished film, astute direction and a lightness of touch could evoke a feeling of delight. No matter the plot – whether it’s a depressed painter searching for inspiration, or a frantic tourist searching for a missing friend – there is an unknowable, authoritative force nestled within the campagne, no more ravishing than when reflected on the big screen.


Partie de campagne will be released on BFI Blu-ray in September 2023.


La Règle du jeu (1939)

Director: Jean Renoir

La Règle du jeu (1939)

“Put an end to this farce!” one character responds. “Which one, your lordship?” his servant replies. At a country weekend in Sologne of the Centre-Val de Loire region, the shallow bourgeois affectations of a group of upper-class wolves are damningly exposed in Renoir’s great pre-Second World War satire.

Schemes are plotted as gamekeepers come to blows with poachers, and secrets are shared on sprawling fields during a group hunt. It’s as if – stripped of their city dwellings full of sycophantic associates – the countryside itself lays bare the characters’ neurotic failings, the senseless killing of their rabbit hunt reflective of their inaction in the face of impending war. La Règle du jeu is the blueprint for any upstairs-downstairs film set among sprawling grounds, but this spiky and sad film is no cosy viewing: the château itself becomes a bunker that barely protects its characters from the threat of ‘over there’.

Jour de fête (1949)

Director: Jacques Tati

Jour de fête (1949)

Life is slow and pleasant for postman François (Jacques Tati), who – despite several maladroit mishaps – is content to cycle around the village of Sainte-Sévère-sur-Indre, where Tati had himself lived during the Occupation. Ducks dawdle in front of a truck. Chickens peck lazily at stray grain in the street. A girl gazes out of her window, flanked by charming shutters and a pristine flower-box on the windowsill. It all unspools merrily, like a roll of toile de jouy wallpaper.

But after the arrival of a travelling fair, two carnies decide to get François drunk for a bit of a lark, showing him a documentary about the uber-efficient US postal service as recourse to getting the bumbling Frenchman a little more in tune with modern times. What results are the sort of scenes that feel more akin to silent cinema, a gently farcical ditty where the grandest drama comes when a bicycle gets stuck in a hedge. As Tati’s debut feature, it already signals at the themes he’d tackle later in his career, namely the absurdity of encroaching technology.

Mouchette (1967)

Director: Robert Bresson

Mouchette (1967)
Criterion

Set in an unnamed rural village (but filmed in Apt and Reillanne, both situated on sun-ripened Provençal hills), Robert Bresson’s film follows 24 hours in the life of the eponymous Mouchette – “little fly” – who is living an existence of quotidian misery. Her limp, greasy hair is tied in two wonky bows; she endures bullying from her father and schoolmates; her mother is dying. Bresson’s ascetic simplicity is the perfect vehicle to explore her story, where the tone is distanced and documentarian.

It’s the introduction of urban elements that brings momentary joy to Mouchette’s existence: this is no clearer than in a scene where she seems to flirt with a boy while riding bumper cars when the fair comes to town. By choosing non-professional actors, Bresson extracts an unaffected performance from young Nadine Nortier, where wells of anguish temper in her solemn brown eyes. The countryside is not restorative: in fact, the woods are the setting for the film’s most memorable scene, set in a rainstorm where little Mouchette huddles under a tree before witnessing, then experiencing, an act of violence. 

Le Boucher (1970)

Director: Claude Chabrol

Le Boucher (1970)

This grisly thriller pairs bourgeois schoolteacher Hélène (a chic Stéphane Audran) with meek-mannered butcher Popaul (Jean Yanne) in the pretty commune of Trémolat in the Dordogne. They are both outsiders, somewhat, and form an unlikely bond through several convivial strolls, mushroom-picking in the woods, and after Popaul presents her with a leg of lamb trussed up to look like a bouquet of flowers.

Repression, desire, tension and pathos – Claude Chabrol’s film has it all in spades, with the peaceful surroundings harshly corrupted by the threat of serial murder stalking the small village. Hélène finds herself aroused, almost, even by Popaul slicing into roast meat with his glinting knife; her repression is a coiled spring, and to watch Chabrol tease away at it for 90 taut minutes is a tense joy.

And Soon the Darkness (1970)

Director: Robert Fuest

And Soon the Darkness (1970)

One of those particularly skilful films that manages to be menacing despite taking place entirely in broad daylight. English director Robert Fuest took the late-mod style and garish block colours of the swinging 60s and transplanted them to the Loiret region of north-central France, where two British nurses have decided to embark on a cycling holiday. While guilty of aping other styles – the poster itself boldly states “Remember the way Hitchcock kept you on the edge of your seat…?” – the persistent atmosphere of unseen menace and sexual threat is titillatingly tense. 

There’s a palpable sense of alienation from one’s surroundings in And Soon the Darkness; no subtitles are provided for the French speech, meaning that despite the charming café terraces and ostensibly tranquil surroundings, the majority of audiences feel as confused and lost as the protagonist herself when her friend goes missing.  

Vagabond (1985)

Director: Agnès Varda

Vagabond (1985)

Sandrine Bonnaire was just 17 when she gave an impossibly mature performance as Mona Bergeron, a vagrant who drifts through the Languedoc-Roussillon wine country one bitingly cold winter. Director Agnès Varda opens the film on Mona’s frozen corpse, discovered by a farmer in a ditch, before rewinding to see how this young woman found herself in such desperate circumstances. 

Mona is a drifter. Not a flâneur – that cheerful, freeing word to describe a man who wanders detached from place to place in order to observe society – but somebody whose possessions are falling apart with each muddy terrain crossed. Varda ascribes a mythic importance to this girl, who is literally borne out of the sea and soliloquised by those who met her; the director validates the vantage point of both the strangers who attempt to help her, and Mona’s own right to refuse to be thankful or pliant.

Many of Varda’s works take place in rural France and/or the countryside – Le Bonheur (1965), The Gleaners and I (2000) and Faces, Places (2017), to name just some – and in all the director fascinatingly unspools these locales as places of harsh humanity.

Jean de Florette (1986)

Director: Claude Berri

Jean de Florette (1986)

A dream come true for the French tourist board – or perhaps an albatross around the neck of Provençal locals who saw masses of tourists descending on their picturesque villages upon release – Jean de Florette was an odd film to make people yearn for slow living on a rural farm, considering it depicts how brutal an existence it can be. A triptych of Gallic heavyweights star in this first of a two-part adaptation of Marcel Pagnol’s eponymous novel, in which a bad-teeth bumpkin named Ugolin (Daniel Auteuil) and his nefarious, greedy uncle (Yves Montand, in his last film role) scheme to ensure the failure of city-man-turned-hopeful-farmer Jean (Gérard Depardieu).

Yes, cinematographer Bruno Nuytten lovingly shoots scenes of glistening ripe figs, glowing fields of wheat and games of pétanque in sun-dappled courtyards. But this isn’t gentle stuff: director Claude Berri imbues it with a godly heft, creating a quasi-religious tragedy about how hopelessly ill-equipped we are to deal with the cruelty of both human nature and mother nature.

The Vanishing (1988)

Director: George Sluizer

The Vanishing (1988)

While similar to And Soon the Darkness, inasmuch as both plots involve someone going missing while on a touring holiday in France, George Sluizer’s The Vanishing dispenses with genre thrills to craft a synth-heavy atmosphere of thudding dread. One of the most frightening films of the 80s, without resorting to tropes of the horror genre, it sees a Dutch couple driving through the Occitanie region during the Tour de France, only for one of them to vanish without a trace at a gas station. 

And then, soon after, we see Raymond (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu) meticulously practising his kidnapping routine; the pieces click. The charming surroundings of both the sociopath’s gîte and the site of the titular vanishing only makes the idea of evil hiding in plain sight more awful, the Nîmes countryside providing frightening cover for any manner of dastardly deed. It plays out like an Éric Rohmer film on bad drugs, with an unforgettable ending that sees our protagonist literally fossilised within the earth.

Van Gogh (1991)

Director: Maurice Pialat

Van Gogh (1991)

Despite the plainly blunt title, Maurice Pialat’s anti-drama ‘biopic’ of the Dutch painter is no basic re-telling of his Wikipedia page; nor is it even really about the last 67 days of Van Gogh’s life, as it purports to be. Yé-yé-icon-turned-actor Jacques Dutronc shuffles in and out of the periphery over the 160-minute runtime, where, for the majority of the scenes, secondary characters speak and he listens, rake-thin and with a hangdog expression, even ill-at-ease with a paintbrush balanced precariously in his bony fingers. 

This all unfolds among the bucolic environs of Auvers-sur-Oise, with cinematography reminiscent of one of the artist’s final pieces – Wheatfield with Crows – which he said evoked both the “extreme loneliness” and the “healthy and fortifying” nature of this stretch of French countryside. From ruddy-cheeked girls in straw hats languishing by ponds to the brief interlude of joy at a dance-hall, Pialat takes us from scene to scene with no regard for the typical rhythm of a biopic. How much more interesting the film is as a result. 

Scarlet (2022)

Director: Pietro Marcello

Scarlet (2022)

In a Normandy village, a woodcarver – thick-browed, weathered, gentle – returns from the First World War to find that his wife has died, leaving him in the sole care of his young daughter Juliette. They are taken in by a kindly local farmer, but are considered outcasts in the village; as the years pass, Juliette escapes into nature, where the pastoral idyll of countryside living is at odds with the ostracising nature of such small, gossipy environments. 

It is a tiny fable of grand beauty, with tactile 16mm film grain and lilting melodies. As an outsider, the Italian director’s vantage point is an interesting one – this is resolutely a fairytale, a story where an innocent ingénue swims and sings in forest-shrouded lakes, her laissez-faire lifestyle contrasting with the physical toll of manual labour that her father endures. And then there is a witch. A handsome man falls from the sky, professing love. Glinting in golden sunlight, Scarlet is moving and romantic, overlaid with magical realism.

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