Set in France in 1915 as the First World War grinds to a close, the sumptuous but slow-moving Renoir describes the later life of renowned French painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir. The film also portrays the stirring of passion for the cinema in his son, Jean (who at the time was a convalescing war veteran) and the effect on both their lives of Pierre-Auguste’s new model and Jean’s romantic interest Andree (Christa Theret).
This film is not a comprehensive showcase of the older Renoir’s paintings or the younger Renoir’s films; Jean Renoir had not even made a film at this stage. In fact, the movie’s crepe-thin plot barely qualifies as biopic or romance. Instead, director Gilles Bourdos immerses us in the domestic lives of two remarkable artists and the woman who entranced and inspired them.
While this film doesn’t document all of impressionist pioneer Renoir’s great works, it does provide moving insights into his artistic approach and philosophy. He wanted to celebrate beauty and colour (he saw colour as the defining structural element of his work) and to shut out the ugliness and darkness in the world. Consequently, Renoir decamped to an idyllic setting on the French Riviera where he painted a succession of curvaceous nymphs. To capture this idealised world, the film is bathed in soft golden light and filled with vivid sensuous colours.
The film compellingly exposes the precariousness of Renoir’s idyll and the naïveté of his isolationism and optimism, though, as soldiers, horribly disfigured by the war, encroach upon his utopia. Renoir is also forced to acknowledge the reality of human misery in his ageing body which was crippled with arthritis and covered in hideous carbuncles.
As Renoir senior, Michel Bouquet delivers an effecting if restrained performance as a wise and world-weary man who could be warm and avuncular one minute but critical, bitter and aloof the next. As Jean Renoir, Vincent Rottiers come across less as a nascent cinematic genius than a dashing gentlemen soldier who might have come from Downton Abbey. The film really belongs to Christa Theret who, fortunately, doesn’t portray Andree as a mere cypher for the two males’ artistic talents but as a complete and complex person. Theret, who resembles Titanic-era Kate Winslet, is wonderfully flirtatious and sensual as a model and romantic lead but she also brings fiery passion, earthiness, impetuosity and female assertiveness to the staid patriarchy of Renoir’s home.
Some may find the film’s minimalist plot and languid tone dull but many will be quietly seduced by the intriguing characters and the film’s aesthetic beauty.
Nick’s rating: Three stars.
Director(s): Gilles Bourdos.
Release date: 24th Oct 2013.
Running time: 111 mins.
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