Based on its title alone, Renoir sounds like a standard biopic on the legendary French painter. The actual work, however, is as much about another famous artist by the same name, Pierre-August’s son Jean, who would go on to make such classic films as Grand Illusion and The Rules of the Game. Such duality lends Gilles Bourdos’ film an unexpected depth and nicely complements its luxurious French Riviera scenery. The combination isn’t quite enough to push the often plodding narrative into must-see territory, but its overall plesant nature is difficult to resist.
The graceful film’s father/son story unfolds on the sprawling seaside grounds of the Renoir estate in the summer of 1915. More of a family portrait and love story than a drama, as there’s no great tension of which to speak, the events concern beautiful young portrait model Andrée Heuschling (Christa Theret) and her impact on both men’s lives. His hands wrought with arthritis, old master Pierre-August (Michel Bouquet) is inspired anew by Andrée’s classic loveliness and creates his final great set of works. Had he been a few years younger, he may have been moved in other ways, as his 21-year-old son Jean (Vincent Rottiers) is so visibly affected.
Leaping directly into the artistic clan’s dynamic in the manner of its outsider female lead, Renoir somewhat dangerously assumes that viewers are familiar with Pierre-August’s legacy and, to a lesser extent, with Jean’s future work. In the case of the old man, the masterpieces that line his house’s walls and his oft-spoken reputation fill in the blanks while scenes of him at work accomplish even more. With a quiet excitement, Bourdos recreates a handful of Pierre-August’s late-life paintings, allowing the brushstrokes and charcoal lines to reflect the artist’s skill. By contrast, Jean’s interest in cinema is barely explored, and though he had merely fiddled around with the medium at that point, the film suffers from its narrow portrayal of the son’s own art.
Transcending these inconsistencies is Theret, lighting up each of her scenes with a beauty to match her lush surroundings. Often sans clothes as part of the job, her nudity is handled with the utmost maturity, allowing it to feel far more like an extension of the artistic process than an object of lust (though to various extents for both Renoir men, it’s certainly that, too). Her personality, however, is another matter. As she goes beyond the professional realm with Jean, the film falters somewhat in esablishing their relationship, to the point that its eventual consumation rings a bit false. Her saucy bullying seems at odds with his stoicism, and while opposites attract, it’s no surprise to learn in the postscript of their eventual break-up.
Never quite able to compete with its visual assets, Renoir‘s fairly bland storytelling limits its reach and keeps the film as merely a solid “also ran” of foreign cinema. That the imagery comes close to negating its narrative shortcomings, however, is noteworthy in its own right.
Rated R for sequences of art-related nudity and brief language.
Renoir is currently playing at the Fine Arts Theatre on Biltmore Ave.