Directed by: Gilles Bourdos.
Written by: Gilles Bourdos & Jérôme Tonnerre & Michel Spinosa based on the work by Jacques Renoir.
Starring: Michel Bouquet (Pierre-Auguste Renoir), Christa Theret (Andrée Heuschling), Vincent Rottiers (Jean Renoir), Thomas Doret (Coco Renoir), Romane Bohringer (Gabrielle), Michèle Gleizer (Aline Renoir), Laurent Poitrenaux (Pierre Renoir).
That Gilles Bourdos’ Renoir is a beautiful film is fairly undeniable. Bourdos used a bright color palette to suggest the same colors used by one of the movies subjects – painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir – and tries to capture the same leisurely pace and camera work of the other – his son Jean Renoir – from films like A Day in the Country (1936). This makes Renoir never less than interesting to look at. Unfortunately, that’s about all there is to the film – the narrative arc is under developed, as are the characters, and the film is so leisurely paced that the film never really gains any sort of momentum.
The film takes place over the summer of 1915. The elderly Auguste Renoir (Michel Bouquet) is a renowned artist – one of the leading figures in the impressionist movement – and he is basically sitting around his country estate, being waited on by his staff – who refer to him as “maestro”. Then along comes Andree (Chris Theret), who is there to pose for the master. A fiery, red headed beauty – she inspires something in Auguste, who starts painting more than he has in years. But she is not content to be simply a passive model – her presence there upsets the staff, and their routines. When Auguste’s son Jean (Vincent Rottiers) shows up – to recover from an injury suffered in WWI – things get even more complicated. Like his father, Jean is also inspired by Andree and her beauty – and he starts to show the signs of the filmmaker he would become.
The star of the movie really is the cinematrography by Mark Ping Bing Lee. The colors are bright and bold, and the camera glides along effortlessly, taking in the sights of this family and all their problems – and in one startling scene, shows some of the ugliness of the outside world at war. If there is a reason to see the film, it’s to see just how gorgeous it is.
Dramatically though, Renoir doesn’t really go anywhere. On the surface, the conflict between father and son, who share their obsession with Andree – who becomes the last muse of Auguste’s career as a painter, and the first muse of Jean as a filmmaker (she starred in his early films), sounds interesting. And yet the character of Andree is left frustratingly unknowable. The movie implies that while she may have inspired great art by both father and son, neither man really knew or understood her. That’s an interesting idea in theory – but the film itself doesn’t seem to understand her as well. Actress Christa Theret is stunningly beautiful, but her character is only skin deep – Bourdos doesn’t see her any more clearly than the artists in his movie.
Also, I never quite bought Rottiers as Jean Renoir. Of course, it is standard practice in a biopic to cast someone better looking than the real person being portrayed – as is the case here – but Rottiers never quite convinced me that he had the soul of a great artist – or that he would be the man to make films as wonderful as The Rules of the Game (1939) – or become the man we see in that movie. Bouquet fares better, perhaps because he is asked to do less – essentially playing an old man with an huge ego – which he does well.
Both Auguste Renoir and his son Jean were important artists, in two very different mediums. Both broke new barriers in their respective art forms, and remain important figures in the art world. They deserved a deeper biopic than Renoir – a film that seems more interested in painting beautiful images than in telling a story. For that matter, Andree Heuschling deserved a deeper movie as well – the film tells us that she died a few months after Jean did – but while he died one of the most famous and respected filmmakers of all time, she died in obscurity. The movie should have done a better job at showing her as a complete person – not just a gorgeous muse for two great artists.