The Renoir alluded to in the title of French director Gilles Bourdos’ latest film could be either the famous impressionist painter or his almost equally famous filmmaker son, Jean (La Grande Illusion). Both men appear in the story, a seemingly desultory yet methodical meditation on art, war, love, life and death that takes place on the painter’s country estate in 1915, four years before his death. World War I rages, just off camera. But all is, for the most part, calm in the sleepy Cote d’Azur town where the movie’s action takes place.
Despite its title, the character who gives Renoir its real charge is neither father (Michel Bouquet) nor son (Vincent Rottiers). Rather, it’s the young woman whose arrival jolts both men out of their complacency. She is Andree (Christa Theret), a teenage artist’s model who, in real life, was recommended to the senior Renoir by the painter Henri Matisse, and who would go on to become Jean’s lover (later his wife) as well as an actress in his films.
As the film opens, Pierre-Auguste Renoir is frail and a bit grumpy, painting from his wheelchair and suffering from rheumatoid arthritis so bad that his brushes must be tied to his swollen hands. He’s also freshly widowed, with his wife having sent away his last favorite model shortly before her own death. (The painter, it is suggested, got a little too friendly with her.) His 21-year-old soldier son, Jean, is on convalescence leave, recovering from a grievous leg injury that has left him on crutches and a little morose.
But both men become a tad more attentive – not to mention alive – when Andree walks in the room.
You will too. She’s a flame-haired beauty, and naked for much of the film, as she poses for several canvases from Renoir’s Bathers series. But Andree is also a spitfire, bluntly outspoken, strangely liberated and a bit of a hothead. In one scene, she’s shown smashing one plate after another from a stack of (probably priceless) dishes that were hand-painted by her boss.
If she’s a muse – and it’s arguable that she was one to both father and son – she’s not a passive one. Theret brings a burning intensity to Renoir that the film otherwise lacks.
That’s not a real complaint. Renoir has some dramatic subtext, in the tension, vague sexual jealousy and subtle artistic rivalry between father and son. Although the story seems to wander aimlessly at times, it has a point to make. Several in fact.
One has to do with war and death.
Although neither theme makes much of an on-screen presence in Renoir – which was shot with an eye for bucolic splendor by Chinese cinematographer Mark Ping Bing Lee – their shadows loom large. Mortality is suggested not only by Jean’s wound – and by his desire to return to the front – but, paradoxically, by the beauty of his father’s art, which the painter describes as a necessary tonic to life’s darker side.
Flesh! That’s all that matters, he rails to his son at one point. If you don’t understand that, you’ll never understand anything, in life or in painting.
Flesh, of course, figures prominently in many of Renoir’s paintings, which almost fetishize the nubile and the naked vitality of the female form. After watching Renoir, you might look at those familiar canvases with eyes that are newly able to see the transience, as well as the transformative power, of such beauty.