A FRAIL, white-haired old gentleman in rumpled, old-fashioned pyjamas - this is our first sight of Louis Ducreux in Bernard Tavernier's exquisitely nostalgic film Un dimanche a la campagne ('A Sunday in the Country', 1984). We see him pottering around a rustic kitchen, and the early morning sunshine plays on his white moustache, his kindly, wrinkled face with the sad mouth, the luminous eyes of a gentle visionary.
For this is also Ladmiral, an old forgotten painter who could not adapt himself to the new styles and theories of the Impressionists, whose work fills him with amused contempt. They no longer see the world as he sees it.
And yet, we see that world, throughout the film, through the old artist's eyes, and it is a world grown familiar to us through the paintings of the Impressionists, almost a Tennysonian world, in which it seems to be always afternoon. The sounds of a provincial Sunday - distant church bells, children's voices, birdsong, the preparations for a substantial Sunday lunch - create a kind of natural musical background.
The period is around 1910, and we are reminded of a similar film, Dejeuner sur l'herbe ('The Picnic', 1959) by Jean Renoir, who perhaps had Manet's famous painting in mind when he borrowed his title, though Manet's alfresco luncheon, with its startling female nude, is a little too grand for the simple Renoir picnic.
All the themes beloved of the despised Impressionists are here: the calm bourgeois interiors with their still-lifes of flowers, fruit and domestic objects, the radiant garden, the period clothes, the pets, the confident, unharried faces. There is also a veteran car, however, an intrusion into the pastoral quiet. It brings the old man's family for Sunday lunch, and as the scenes follow one another, we become aware that the trouble in the painter's mind is caused not just by his rejection of modern art, but also by his growing preoccupation with the equally unbelievable reality of his own old age.
It is a tender, unsentimental, deeply human portrait, sketched in by Ducreux with many delicate touches - his rather pathetic concern about his appearance, the way he touches things, with a delicate grace, as if he feared they might be as brittle as he feels his bones to be. It is a superbly natural performance that is in no way upstaged by a great actress, Sabine Azema, as the old painter's daughter. For Louis Ducreux is playing up his own inimitable self, a character so far removed from the cinematic stereotypes of old people that it strikes us as radiantly youthful in its originality. We are spectators of a masterpiece of acting, unforced, unobtrusive in its use of skills learned during a lifetime in the theatre.
Ducreux was born in 1901 in Marseilles into a family that was infatuated by the theatre and the opera. In 1931, he decided, with his family's support, to form his own company of amateur enthusiasts in Marseilles under the name Le Rideau Gris. The colour of the curtain was symbolic, and its discretion and subdued good taste were to be the hallmarks of all Ducreux's work in the theatre.
In 1933, encouraged by its initial successes, the company became semi-professional. Ducreux recruited then two men whose names were to become famous - Andre Roussin and Georges Wakhevitch. The latter, a Frenchman of Russian extraction, designed the decors of some one hundred of Ducreux's productions. Roussin became a prolific dramatic author, with many long-running successes, like La petite hutte ('The Little Hut', 1947); but he always claimed that he had learnt all his art from Ducreux, working in productions of writers like Cocteau, Supervielle and Claudel, and co-directing classics by Gay and Shakespeare, before he wrote his first play, Am stram gram, in 1941. Meanwhile, Ducreux had also begun trying his hand at play-writing: his Clair-Obscur was put on in Paris in 1938, followed by Musique Legere, L'Amour en papier and La Part du feu.
Ducreux moved from Marseilles to Lyons, then for 15 years was director of the Opera at Marseilles and Monte Carlo. In those days, he was fortunate to have two influential sponsors, the socialist Gaston Defferre and Prince Rainier III, an ecumenical collaboration that this mild-mannered meridional with the mischievous Voltairean smile accepted with sunny equanimity. Towards the end of his life, he took over the direction of the Grand Theatre de Nancy, where he produced operas by Britten, Poulenc and Berg.
Louis Ducreux was on the committee of SACD (Societe des auteurs et compositeurs dramatiques) - equivalent to our Performing Rights Society. At one of their meetings he found himself sitting next to Bertrand Tavernier, and in a pause during royalty negotiations Tavernier asked Ducreux if he would like to act in his new film. Ducreux accepted, and Tavernier directed him with such care and sympathy that he produced one of the most unforgettable portraits of sprightly old age in the history of the French cinema. It scored an immediate hit with public and critics, and its success led to other roles for Ducreux in Italy and on the small screen. But it is as that sweet, lovable old painter Ladmiral that he will be best remembered.