Reel Rating: 4 out of 5 Reels
MPAA Rating: R for sequences of art-related nudity and brief language
Released in Theaters: March 29, 2013 (limited)
Genre: Drama, Biography
Runtime: 111 minutes
Directed by: Gilles Bourdos
Cast: Michel Bouquet, Christa Theret, Vincent Rottiers, Thomas Doret, Romane Bohringer, Michèle Gleizer, Laurent Poitrenaux
Read how the film sparked some travel thoughts at A Traveler’s Library.
Auguste Renoir’s wife has recently died, and the aging painter lives in the midst of beauty (landscape and females), but has trouble regaining an interest in painting.
His estate perches on a hillside above the Côte d’ Azur on the Mediterranean in the South of France, and the grass and trees grow wildly luxuriant around his home and atelier.
A harem of beautiful women surround him — his models who become maids and maids who become models and frequently, in the past, also lovers. They cater to his needs, which are great, carrying his wheelchair across the fields and up the outdoor stairs to his studio; bathing his arthritis- crippled hands in ice water.
World War I rages elsewhere, worrying Renoir only because his oldest son Pierre, and his dearest son, Jean are in the army. The painter (played magnificently by 87-year-old Michel Bouquet) regains his interest in his painting when a new model shows up –according to the movie, having been recruited by his wife before she died.
The 17-year-old Andreé “DeeDee” Heuschling (played by Christa Theret), spends most of the movie nude, posing for the painter who worships sunlight on young flesh. “What interests me is the velvety texture of a young girl’s skin,” he says.
We see so much of her that we forget we are looking at a naked woman and begin to see her through his eyes — as a painterly object, all soft curving forms reflecting light in soft hues.
Director Gilles Bourdos creates magic with the reproduction not only of Renoir’s paintings, but the very act of painting. He pulled off that little trick with the help of a skilled art forger, just released from jail, who replicates the strokes of Renoir’s brush as it creates illusions.
You can see in the film above that Auguste Renoir’s hands are bandaged and the brush tucked within the bandages, since his hands were almost frozen by rheumatism.
For the dedicated moviegoer, half of the joy of the film is seeing the early years of a very confused and directionless Jean Renoir (played by Vincent Rottiers) who we know went on to become one of France’s most acclaimed movie directors. DeeDee makes him promise to make movies with her (and in real life was his muse, actress and wife).
He purchases films from a peddler and screens them for the household. And we crack up when the older brother Pierre (Laurent Poitrenaux), an actor, says to Jean that the French will never be good at film making — it is an American skill. (As we read his words in a subtitle because he is speaking in French in this French film.)
The actor Thomas Doret also fascinates as the teenage son, CoCo, who seems a misfit in the family, colorless, brooding and neglected. He provides an underlying darkness in contrast to the gaiety Renoir tries to surround himself with and recreate in his paintings.
While there is muted tension in the film, mild rebelliousness from Jean and outbursts from the volatile DeeDee, it lacks the clear conflicts you may be used to. Renoir’s life philosophy of “drifting like a cork on a stream” and showing only the free and beautiful sides of life dominate the film.
Cinematography should take top billing here with special recognition of Mark Ping Bing Lee, who along with director Gilles Bourdos recreates so many scenes straight out of Renoir paintings, like the Bathers.
Hints of decay and death creep out from underneath the lush foliage and wrap around the paintings that celebrate life. The women eviscerate fish and fowl in the kitchen; the young son CoCo pokes at a dead animal beside the idyllic stream and waterfall; Dee Dee bicycles past horribly deformed veterans of the war; Renoir’s body, misshapen and increasingly immovable, defies his concentration on life, color and young flesh.
But in the end, the moviegoer remembers the beauty, just as Renoir would have wished. As the Boston Globe’s reviewer Ty Burr notes, “‘Renoir’ doesn’t get much beneath the surface. But, good God, what a surface.”
JANE’S REEL RATING SYSTEM:
One Reel – Even the Force can’t save it.
Two Reels – Coulda been a contender
Three Reels – Something to talk about.
Four Reels – You want the truth? Great flick!
Five Reels – Wow! The stuff dreams are made of.