Directed by Gilles Bourdes
Fidélité Films, 111minutes, Rated R (extensive nudity), in French with subtitles
* * *
Renoir centers on French impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir, though the movie is really a triad involving him, his final model, Andrée, and his middle son Jean. The year is 1913, and though Renoir is an acknowledged master and the financially secure master of a villa and a private atelier on the Côte d’Azur, his world is slowly crumbling. His wife has just died, his two eldest sons are fighting the Germans, and he has rheumatoid arthritis that’s so bad that he’s chair-bound and must have his fingers bound by strips of linen to keep them straight enough to draw or paint. Even worse, he is uninspired. His narrowing world consists of spectacular sea views, a house full of female servants (most of them former models), and a mischievous twelve-year-old son, Coco, whom he sired when he was 61. It’s hard to tell who is more bored and cranky, the old man or Coco.
Just as things seemed hopeless, young Andrée shows up at the gates, having heard that Renoir needed a model. She would beome the old man’s final great inspiration, whom would repeatedly paint until his death in 1919. Andrée (Christa Theret) is a head-turner whose luminous flesh makes Renoir think deeply of his own wrecked body; she also attracts considerable attention from Jean, when he returns home to convalesce from a war wound that cost him two inches of bone and left him with a lifelong limp. Thus Andrée becomes the object of desire of all the males of the Renoir household–the painter longing for lost youth, Jean who is besot with a combination of bedazzlement and lust, and Coco whose on-the-cusp of adolescent hormones are stirred. What unfolds is, needless to say, a complicated set of relationships.
The film also develops three subthemes: beauty and horror, decay and rebirth, and pride versus wisdom. Andrée’s stunning body and the tranquility of the French coast stand in marked contrast to the horrors of World War I, as seen in disfigured vets along the roadside and embodied in Jean’s bone-exposed wound. We see decay and rebirth in several forms, most notably in how Renoir’s arthritis-deformed body and the passing of impressionism contrast to the sun-bathed youth of Andrée and Jean, and in Jean’s screening of silent films in the family parlor. (In his postwar life he became one of the greatest movie directors of all time. Andrée became his first wife and starred in several films under the name Catherine Hessling.) We also see the struggle between vain pride and wisdom in scenes in which Renoir tries to convince Jean not to return to war because of its utter stupidity and Jean stubbornly defends camaraderie to his father and the war itself to a rapacious war profiteer. (We see it also in some of Andrée’s tantrums and foolish decisions.)
As befits a film with Renoir at its center, director Bourdes bathes the screen with painterly scenes. One, of a paintbrush being dipped into a jar of clear water, is ten seconds of absolute beauty, even though it’s a heavy-handed bit of Freudian symbolism with the stiff brush representing the virility of youth and the semen-like paint swirls the ebbing of Renoir’s own. There is another of soldiers on R & R floating on the blue waters of the Mediterranean, their arms akimbo, and shot and lighted from below–as if they were already the corpses they were destined to become in the trenches. (And check out a scene in which headstrong Coco blows purple paint pigment over Andrée’s sleeping nude body.)
The cinematography and two of the central performances are the strongest part of the film. Michel Bouquet is sublime as Renoir. He not only looks the part, but is also a master at conveying the pain of Renoir’s infirmities, his barely contained rage that he has to cope with them, and his headstrong determination to work and capture beauty, no matter the physical toll it exacts. Christa Theret is–dare I say it–a work of art. At one point Renoir remarks that that Titian would have given anything to paint her breasts. I can’t think of an artist who wouldn’t! But she also shows emotional range to match her physical attributes, playing Andrée as self confident, arrogant, impulsive, and reckless, but also as vulnerable, sympathetic, and naïve. Less successful is Vincent Rottiers as Jean, who is too buttoned down. Other than actually watching movies, we get little sense of the artistic vision one associates with Jean Renoir, and we see no hint of the sort of critical analysis that led him to make Grand Illusion in 1937, considered one of the greatest antiwar films ever made.
Those looking for historical accuracy will also be disappointed with some of the script’s liberties. Andrée, for example, was not a referral from Renoir’s wife before she died; Henri Matisse, who thought her more Renoir’s ideal model than his, sent her. In part, that’s because she was a tad fleshier than the nubile Theret. She was also just 13 when she first doffed her clothes for Renoir; not surprisingly, no modern director wants to touch that! Film historians will also pick up that certain works were out of their time period. Most non-scholars, though, will find the film’s pacing languorous in places. One could justify this as appropriate for the subject and its locale, though if one is going to take liberties with basic facts, why not telescope time a bit as well? Still, Renoir is well worth the time. We can appreciate his artistic vision, and we can certainly appreciate his fixation on youthful beauty. You may feel like a voyeur for a while, but you’ll get over it!