Luscious ‘Renoir’ is a painting come to life
For everyone who’s ever wished they could stroll right into the middle of a lush, sun-drenched Impressionist painting by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, the French film Renoir is the next best thing.
Filmed on location in the south of France, where Renoir lived and painted in the last 20 years of his life, Gilles Bourdos’ visually intoxicating film is alive with the extraordinary light and vibrant colors of both the natural world and the robust female forms that distinguish the painter’s most beloved work. True, the storyline rarely rises above Art Bio 101, but it doesn’t have to when every frame of film is such a living, breathing homage to the maestro’s work.
In 1915, the elderly Renoir (Michel Bouquet) has retired to a farmhouse in the verdant countryside above the French Riviera. So arthritic, he needs gauze tied around his gnarled hands to support the paint brush, and assistants to mix the colors, he is attended by half a dozen competent women—maids who began as models, and vice-versa—who do all the heavy lifting. Literally, they carry the painter in his wheelchair from the farmhouse up the hill to his painting atelier every day; they also do all the cooking and housekeeping for “the Boss,” while looking after his youngest son still at home, restless tween, Claude, called Coco (Thomas Doret), who feels neglected and ignored under his father’s gigantic shadow.
Along comes Andree (Christa Theret), a pert young redhead with a pearlescent complexion and a modern attitude (she claims to be an actress), to pose for the Boss. Regretting the “complications” of his past, Renoir now wants to “simplify things” and only paint beauty. All he cares about are “brush strokes melting into each other” and the color that “contains the structure” of a painting, and the ripe, curvy Andree becomes his last muse. (Sketches of her in various positions evidently inspire most of the figures in his later canvas, “The Bathers.”)
Soon, the painter’s older son, Jean (Vincent Rottiers)—beloved by all the household women—comes home from World War I to convalesce after being wounded at The Front. As blasé as Jean is about his father’s nude models, the provocative Andree gradually lights a fire under Renoir fils as well. Theirs is hardly a torrid affair, involving as it does much reclining amid the wildflowers in sun-dappled meadows, but that’s in keeping with the film’s unhurried tone.
Father-son dynamics, the suppressed rivalries, resentments, and regrets of family life, erotic young love, and the eternal conflict between the beauty of life and the ugly insanity of warfare are all tossed into the simmering cassoulet of the plot. As the languid world of farm and country makes way for the motorcycles, aeroplanes and cinema of the new age, Bouquet’s wistful, yet cantankerous Renoir frets over the danger to Jean at the Front, yet despairs that his son is “a dabbler” without a “profession” (i.e. using his hands to make something useful). In fact, Jean would become a lauded film director in his own right (his Grand Illusion remains an anti-war classic), and filmmaker Bourdos argues that it was the acting ambitions of Andree—also a real-life person—that prompted Jean to choose his vocation.
Theret looks like a Renoir, especially around the mouth, although she’s not nearly as fleshy. It’s funny when Andree complains the painter “always makes me look too fat,” since women of that era were not as obsessed with skeletal thinness as they are today. (It’s also disappointing that the forthright Andree becomes something of a pouty brat by film’s end.) It’s also a bit off when the maestro advises Jean to “go with the flow” (at least that’s how it’s translated in the subtitles) and not tempt fate by returning to The Front.
But artists and fans will love seeing Renoir’s paintings coming to life on the canvas. (Evidently the hand of a convicted art forger stands in for Renoir’s in close-up, composing images right before the camera eye.) Factor in the lovely life-sized women, exquisite fabrics (lace, damask, embroidered bed linens, beautifully textured clothing), and voluptuous food (peppers, tomatoes, fruit, squash) and you have a recipe for one tantalizing visual feast.
★★★ (out of four)
With Michel Bouquet, Christa Theret, and Vincent Rottiers. Written by Gilles Bourdos and Jerome Tonnere. Directed by Gilles Bourdos. A Samuel Goldwyn Films release. Rate R. 111 minutes. In French with English subtitles.