Wandering the dappled grounds of an old farmhouse, Henry plays schoolmaster at an open-air painting retreat, where his instructional duties seem to involve holding forth at candlelit dinners in the garden and sucking down endless cans of Budweiser on the lawn while the work of painting and posing happens elsewhere. In this dreamy zone he’s the sole orator, monologuing through a set of otherwise silent tableaux as around him his students lounge, frolic, and occasionally knuckle down to their canvasses. Then, Henry’s distracted, horny gaze lights on one of his nubile young pupils, Bianca, and her volatile beau Steven. “Don’t you think,” he says, patting the thigh of a compatriot, “Steven and Bianca and I could really hit it off in a setting as free as this?”
Though it premiered at Telluride in 2014, Jerzy Rose’s En Plein Air can’t help but feel like a throwback; with its sur l’herbe summer setting and high-comedic sense of mortal foolishness it’s an open homage to the Eric Rohmer of La Collectionneuse or Claire’s Knee, down to the palette of sun-ripened skin tones and surreal greens. But where Rohmer’s summer holidays exude lightness and sexual liberality (see: pretty much the entirety of Pauline at the Beach), Henry’s feckless swainery inevitably curdles into something predatory, and here in the autumn of our discontent 2017 it’s a bleakly familiar scene.
Although Rose’s camera doesn’t stick around to show us the aftermath, we’ve already seen the full picture of a would-be mentor desperately wedging himself into a young woman’s love life. Making free with his cynicism about men’s motives, Rose lets the taste of sun-soured beer and stale Camels bleed through, sullying the idyllic landscape. -Jonathan Kieran.