What's on the TV? Why, it's the news, and the presenter is discussing a man whom many regard as the genius of our age, Etienne Alexis (Paul Meurisse), a brilliant scientist who believes he can solve the world's problems if given his way. There are plenty who believe him and are willing to hand over the reins of power to this great thinker since he is currently working on a foolproof form of artificial insemination which will be of terrific benefit to mankind, and not only that but the media is full of stories about Etienne's upcoming nuptials with the leader of the Girl Scouts organisation, Marie-Charlotte (Ingrid Nordine)...
Le Dejeuner sur l'herbe, or Picnic on the Grass as it was known in English (also Lunch on the Grass if you wanted to be picky), was one of French director and artist Jean Renoir's last films; he lived on into the nineteen-nineties, but appeared to lose his enthusiasm for the medium in his later years, which made it more fitting that with this film he nostalgically returned to his roots in the area of France where he spent his idyllic childhood. With that in mind, you could appreciate his wish to craft a visually beautiful piece which would simultaneously capture the lovely countryside and pay tribute to his famous painter father who had been so inspired by those surroundings.
On the other hand, take away those verdant and lush images and you had a film which looked like an old geezer increasingly out of touch. We are supposed to see Etienne's research and faith in science as something naïve at best, damaging to society at worst, but this merely served to illustrate how far from reality Renoir was if this was his idea of the study of the world. Take his concept of artificial insemination, a practice which has gone on to do immense good for couples who could not conceive otherwise, yet here depicted as essentially the enemy of love and against Mother Nature, which the director held sacrosanct above all else. It's a truly hopeless notion of even the most basic science and its benefits.
The trouble was that on this evidence Renoir saw science as something opposed to nature instead of reliant on or complementary to it: late in the film Etienne meets a priest who pretty much tells him all that he holds dear in his field of study is bullshit when he should be placing his faith in religion, oh and evolution is a pernicious idea which is a slap in the face to God. This kind of ignorance does the film no favours, and you have begun to wish Renoir had made a natural history documentary instead of telling off the audience on a subject which he had such a poor grasp of. Nevertheless, the filmmaker sets out to teach the buttoned down lead character a lesson by plonking him down in his beloved countryside and allowing it to work its overwhelming influence on him, almost as a punishment.
Sure, Etienne gets his happy ending, Renoir wasn't going to play up the grumpy old man persona that far, but the self-satisfied air to this comeuppance left an irksome work. In the plot, there's a girl, Nanette (Catherine Rouvel), who loves the idea of artificial insemination and wants to try it herself, so when Etienne arrives in the vicinity of her farmhouse with his colleagues for a symbolic picnic she jumps at the chance to meet him, as if every young woman wanted a baby but was rejecting love and anything "natural" (in the director's opinion) to get it. Nanette is far from a bad person, simply misguided, so the film places various trials she and the older man must go through to make them realise all this science business is strictly a dead end. That includes a goatherd who has a magic flute which blows up a hurricane-force wind to send the picnickers flying, presumably supposed to be hilarious yet actually revealing a vindictive streak towards anyone who was convinced by science. With all this finger wagging, in spite of surface attractiveness it was a sour experience. Music by Joseph Kosma.