Christa Theret as Andree Heuschling and Michel Bouquet as Pierre-Auguste Renoir in Renoir.
Photo Credit: Fidelite Films and Samuel Goldwyn Films
A dummy dressed as a German soldier hangs in effigy along a quiet country lane on the Côte d’Azur. It’s 1915 and World War I haunts the pastoral picture even from hundreds of miles away. We know what the war portends for the world and that is enough. Nearby, the impressionist Pierre-Auguste Renoir struggles through his final years; still making life out of color, but wheelchair-bound and barely able to grip his brushes from the rheumatoid arthritis. A self-described cork in the stream, he is a man who has adapted and made the most out of the twists and turns of his life. The story of Pierre-Auguste’s middle son Jean, however, is not yet written. At 21 with his career as a world-renowned filmmaker still 20 years away, Jean has returned from war a wounded man. Almost wilting in the shadow of his great father, he is lost and lacking ambition. Into this nexus between war and peace, between son and father, comes the beautiful Andrée Heuschling, Pierre-Auguste’s new model and a spark that might bring Jean to life.
So goes Gilles Bourdos’ new bio Renoir, a polite and pleasant look at one of cultural history’s great families based on the book by Pierre-Auguste’s great grandson, Jacques Renoir. 87-year-old Claude Chabrol regular Michel Bouquet inhabits the infirm painter and anchors the film with a creaky, weary, lived-in performance that lets the artist’s still-vibrant creative energy seep through. Also good is Christa Theret, the beautiful, restless and ambitious Andrée who would one day become Jean’s wife and the star of many of his very early films. She holds the film together even if it is the father and son who continually grab our attention. For his part, Vincent Rottiers has a more difficult task as young Jean. A bit of a cypher, he physically parallels his father in that he spends most of the film on crutches, but psychologically the two men are on opposite trajectories. Pierre-Auguste is winding down, but Jean is eager to climb out from under the older man’s titanic footprint. At the same time, Jean has clearly had experiences in war unlike anything known by his father and he seems to want to both live up to the man and transcend him in his own way.
This is all great raw material, but it’s a little frustrating that it doesn’t amount to more. Narratively it’s a bit inert and biographically it doesn’t offer anything about either man beyond what we already know. As a character, Andrée seems less like a human being than narrative glue. The screenplay (credited to director Bourdos, Michel Spinosa and Jeromme Tonnerre) tends to be overly direct and obvious with the characters, especially Auguste, speaking in platitudes. Ultimately, Renoir is respectful, but not terribly illuminating. On the other hand, it’s lovely to look at and to listen to. The French Riviera is beautifully photographed in a perpetual golden light by Mark Ping Bing Lee (In the Mood for Love) and Alexandre Desplat turns in a subtle and quietly beautiful score. As such, Renoir might not rewrite the rules of the typical cinematic biography, but it’s at least a nice place to visit for a couple of hours.
Filed under: Review