As a general rule, lyrical tone poems about art and aging don’t exactly make for the most riveting movies. That’s certainly true of Renoir, Gilles Bourdos’ breezy exploration of two great artists named Renoir that certainly has the lush pictorial beauty of the painterly father, but can’t match the depth and humanity of the filmmaker son. It’s a movie that feels like a pleasant homework assignment. The historical and artistic significance of the tale is brain-tingling, there are some nice performances, and the cinematography, costumes, and production design or gorgeous. However the movie never really achieves much beyond the surface pleasures, eventually stumbling to a close with whispers and romance feigning as content. It’s a nice movie, just not a very deep one.
The setting in France in 1915. The war rages on, but the elderly Pierre-Auguste Renoir (Michel Bouquet) remains isolated on his rural farm. He’s become so frail that he must try a paintbrush to his hands just to work, yet has his attentions and passions awaken when a beautiful new woman wonders into his life looking for some modeling work. Her name is Andree (Christa Theret), a vibrant and beautiful redhead with peculiar ideas and dreams of acting. She becomes the latest in the series of gorgeous models who have made up Renoir’s life and inspirations. While he’s too old to consummate his love, the girl’s presence seems to revive his spirits for a final blast and he paints her nude almost every day. The Pierre-Auguste’s son Jean (Vincent Rottiers) returns to the farm. He’s been fighting in the war and is vaguely disgusted by the old man’s flesh n’ paint obsessed lifestyle. They bicker about the value of art in life and then Jean falls for the mysterious Andree. Of course, if you’re a student of cinema you’ll know the name Jean Renoir as one of the great French filmmakers behind such masterpieces as The Grand Illusion and The Rules Of The Game. Andree would become his wife and the star of his first few films. So, despite their political differences, like father like son.
There’s an interesting irony at the center of Renoir’s failings as a film. Much of the story is taken up by sequences in which the Renoirs elder and junior argue over the place of art in life. Daddy Renoir feels that the sensual pleasure of paint and imagery is the greatest joy of life while Renoir-the-young believes his father is willfully ignoring the most important aspects of human existence in favor of painting the nipples of pretty ladies. Given that Jean Renoir would become a filmmaker who made beautifully crafted explorations of human nature, clearly he put this theory in practice. For Renoir director Gilles Bourdos, that’s not really the case. He clearly enjoys the multigenerational artist theme and exploring what made both Renoirs tick as a fan of their work. However Renoir doesn’t delve to deeply into what makes any of these characters tick as people. They’re either symbols of artistic ideals or foreground elements of pretty compositions
Fortunately Bourdos does at least craft his pretty pictures well. The film can feel like it was shot exclusively at magic hour, filled with gorgeous painterly autumn hues. Each set and costume was meticulously designed and all the actors embody their roles with the necessary passion (particularly Bouquet’s heartbreaking portrayal of painful aging and Theret’s mysteriously erotic muse). The fact that there’s little content in the film beyond an art school lecture on the differences in the Renoir’s artistic taste doesn’t seem to matter quite so much while you’re watching. Every image is so carefully crafted that the emptiness of the story only racks into focus once the last pretty picture fades away. For anyone obsessed with the two Renoirs, it’s something that demands to be seen and should be on art school screening lists shortly. For anyone else it’s merely an attractive distraction that’s quickly forgotten. Choose to attend accordingly.