At the heart of Bertrand Tavernier's 1984 film about a turn-of the-century French painter lies a bittersweet irony: he has filmed his story with an impressionist's palette, a style of painting Monsieur Ladmiral (Louis Ducreux) had chosen not to use, remaining steadfast to what we now call "academic art" with its studied indoor still lifes, fresh-scrubbed peasants, and posed historical scenes.
It is interesting to note that several movie and video collections (including Maltin's "Movie & Video Guide" and "Video Hound's Golden Movie Retriever") call Monsieur Ladmiral an "impressionist," and Maltin adds that he "never quite made the grade." This misses two important points. First, Monsieur Ladmiral is a success: his paintings have made him wealthy and respected; he has received many honors including the Rosette he wears on his lapel. Second, he is a disappointment only to himself since he did not follow his youthful inclination to become an impressionist.
The story takes place on a summer Sunday in the French countryside near Paris in 1912. The date is important, for the reputations of Monet, Renoir, Caillebotte are in the ascendancy and Academic painting is being marginalized. Ladmiral is old and will soon die, yet he keeps to his routine, polishing his shoes, bantering with his housekeeper (Monique Chaumette), checking his studio, walking to the train station to meet his son and family whose Sunday visits are a source of both pleasure and wistful regret. His son Gonzague (Michel Aumont), who clearly loves his father, is a petit fonctionnaire and a disappointment to the old man, who makes no effort to hide his feelings.
The apple of Monsieur Ladmiral's eye is his daughter Irčne (Sabine Azéma); she is headstrong and follows her own instincts, traits he himself has long ago abandoned. She rarely visits her father, but this Sunday is an exception.
Irčne appears to be the modern woman: she arrives in an automobile, flitters about as though she hasn't a care in the world, teases her father and her brother's family, gives the housekeeper a bit of money, plays with her niece and feels the girl will die young, in effect turns a traditional Sunday into a rollicking playlet. We will learn later that she is putting on a good front, that her love life in in tatters. Monsieur Ladmiral is both touched and a bit depressed by his daughter's exuberance. Her modernity is a not so subtle reminder that his days have passed, not only his style of painting, but painting as he knows it. Impressionism is giving way to Matisse and Picasso and the wholly different art form.
Irčne's exuberant presence contrasts starkly with that of her brother. Gonzague has a dotting wife and lovely children; he would probably be a contented man if it weren't for his father's disapproval. Monsieur Ladmiral recognizes that his son, like himself, has followed his lead and chosen a safe secure life. His daughter has chosen a more daring path but is clearly unhappy with her lot. I believe Monsieur Ladmiral admires her for striking out, something he was incapable of doing perhaps.
In the film's most intimate moment, Ladmiral tells Irčne of his flirtation with Impressionism and his ultimate decision to paint within himself, to "paint as I felt--with honesty." He wonders if he lacked courage, afraid that if he tried to imitate others he would have lost "my own private melody." Tavernier chooses to set this scene not in Monsieur Ladmiral's garden (see picture above) or house where most of the film takes place, but at a country inn where animated young couples are dancing and flirting, a scene that could have been lifted from Renoir's Dance at Bougival ( picture below).
The film is based on Pierre Bost's novel "Mr Ladmiral will soon die," and this theme of impending death is never far from Ladmiral's thoughts. He tells Irčne that when she woke him from his nap a few hours earlier he had been dreaming of Moses, who at least saw the promised land and died content. "Did I age too quickly?" he asks his daughter. Instead of answering him, she asks him to dance with her, leading him, so to speak, within the impressionist tableau. Later, as Irčne is leaving to return to her lover, her father tells her to stay young.
The last sequence of the film takes up the dual themes of aging (dying, if you will) and the lasting, though ephemeral, qualities of art. Monsieur Ladmiral has returned to his estate after putting his son's family on the Paris train. His housekeeper is closing the shutters and Ladmiral scolds her: "Why do you always close up the house before the light has gone?" He enters his studio and studies the still life (the term in French is vie morte, dead life) he has been working on, gives it a little rub with a finger. But this isn't what he wants to work on. He removes it from the easel and places it against a wall, face inward. He then places an empty canvas on the easel, turns it around and sits facing the window. Are we to surmise that he will at last try to paint in the impressionist manner? I think not. As he stares at the blank canvas the film slowly fades to black. But Tavernier is not finished--there is one more shot, a tracking shot that is nearly identical to the film's opening. The camera is placed inside the darkened house. Outside the sunlight plays among the trees and flowers. Ever so slowly the camera moves toward the window until it embraces the light, the "Promised Land." Monsieur Ladmiral, like Moses, has seen it, and though he will never enter it, he can now die content.
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