Le Dejeuner Sur L’Herbe

Le Dejeuner Sur L’Herbe


Reviewed by: Angus Wolfe Murray

You might suspect that Le Dejeuner Sur L’Herbe is one of Jean Renoir’s earlier works because of its naïve satire and simplistic characterizations, but it was made in the late Fifties when the director was 65.

Treated as a romantic fable, not a 100km from Pygmalion, the message is clear. Scientific advance may dazzle the uninitiated and infuriate those of a Luddite persuasion, but ultimately nature has the final say. In the brave new world of artificial insemination, where “love will become a sport, like hunting and fishing,” sex can be discarded as an awkward interference – in theory.

Copy picture

Professor Etienne Alexis (Paul Meurisse) is a biologist and television star, who has ambitions to become president of Europe. His views on artificial insemination and “the fabrication of children being entrusted to the specialists” are controversial and discredited by the Church. “Passion can be tamed by antibiotics,” he says, 50 years before Prozac. “Everything can be explained scientifically.”

Rather than being the dashing nonconformist, out to reeducate the masses in the positives of progress, Alexis is prissy and pompous, intoxicated by his intellect, surrounded by acolytes and manipulative family members, eager to exploit his fame for their own ends. His engagement to the tall, icy, Germanic Marie Charlotte (“I’m going to take a half hour stroll, with breathing exercises”), is a sham. If he has love for anything, it is the sound of his own voice.

Making fun of this self-important prig has only limited scope, which is where Nenette (Catherine Rouvel) comes in. She is a peasant girl, who has read Alexis’ advertisement for women to come forward to become surrogate mothers in his artificial insemination experiment. Her only sexual experience has been an unsatisfactory encounter with a peddler and she is desperate for a baby and so arrives at Alexis’ palatial mansion where she is hired to look after the guinea pigs.

During a picnic in the woods, where Nenette is helping to serve the guests, a grizzled villager, complete with his “familiar”, a pet goat, plays the pipes from a hidden vantage point amongst the rocks and a sudden storm ensues, causing havoc, after which Alexis and Nenette find themselves together. He is charmed by her innocence and beauty; she loves the way he talks. The result? Alexis’ theories fall victim to Nenette’s irrepressible sex appeal and so nature triumphs over science.

For a filmmaker so adept at the nuances of human relationships, Le Dejeuner Sur L’Herbe lacks subtlety. It works best as a fable, in which the pan pipes have magical powers and Nenette’s sweet nature is acceptable in the concept of a rural idyll as compared to the intellectual competitiveness of Alexis’ circle.

The comedy is heavy-handed, relieved by a delightful performance from Rouvel, while Meurisse is more like a schoolmistress at a fairground, determined not to appear disapproving and yet nervous of the great outdoors.

Reviewed on: 24 Jun 2007
Share this with others on...
Le Dejeuner Sur L’Herbe packshot
A famous scientist falls victim to nature’s seductive charms. Currently out to own as part of the seven-disc Jean Renoir Collection.
Amazon link

Director: Jean Renoir

Writer: Jean Renoir

Starring: Paul Meurisse, Catherine Rouvel, Ingred Nordine, Pierre Leproux, Raymond Jourdan, Jean-Pierre Granval, Micheline Gary, Robert Chandeau, Andre Brunot

Year: 1959

Runtime: 91 minutes

BBFC: PG - Parental Guidance

Country: France


Search database: