In 1915, the celebrated impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir (Michel Bouquet) is mourning the loss of his wife, the pains of arthritis and the news that his son, Jean (Vincent Rottiers) has been wounded in battle. But a new radiantly beautiful model, Andrée (Christa Theret) miraculously rejuvenates and inspires Pierre-Auguste. When Jean Renoir returns to his father’s property to recover, he too falls under Andrée’s spell and despite his father’s strong opposition, he falls in love with her wild spirit. Unexpectedly, battle-weary Jean is also inspired creatively by Andrée’s desire to be an actress and his career as a filmmaker begins.

 

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A tastefully dull portrait.

I should probably confess, first of all, that I never much liked Renoir’s paintings. Of all the Impressionists he seemed to me the least interesting; his palette—his flesh tones, in particular—struck me as overripe, his subject-matter bourgeois, complacent and dull. Like Rubens and Watteau (each of whom he revered), he prettified aspects of life already so comfortable as to require no further aestheticising.

Worst of all were his brush-stokes, fussy and feathery in a way that drew one’s attention from the image to the process of its making. These paintings were all neurotic surface; the question therefore became less about whether one admired the painting, than whether one felt sympathetic to the temperament that produced it. (In this sense, of course, they were 'modern’ in a way that many of his peers—Pissarro, Guillaumin, Bazille—most emphatically were not.)

I’m hardly the ideal candidate, in other words, for a movie about this beloved artistic icon. But then, biopics are a chancy proposition at the best of times. For every truly inspired re-imagining (think: Peter Watkins’ Edward Munch, or Pialat’s Van Gogh—or even Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There), there’s a dozen dutiful, overly-reverential plods through the Major Incidents and Notable Personages of some shmoe’s life.

This one lies somewhere in between. It would be ridiculous to assign to a movie about Renoir to a director of real, idiosyncratic brilliance. Neither Gaspar Noé nor Bruno Dumont, for example, would make a great fist of this story. (Their take on Courbet, however, I’d pay good money to see.) Yet in the workmanlike Gilles Bourdos, both the artist and his legacy has found a safe pair of hands. Bourdos is no auteur; there’s no personal stamp upon any of his work—scarcely a trace of an authorial presence at all, in fact. His films look pretty, are eminently well-made, and provide the same pleasure as a good, but not great boeuf bourguignon. You leave with your appetite satisfied"¦ and the experience was undeniably, quintessentially 'French’. Still, you might not exactly rush to recommend it to friends.

The story’s approach, at least, is interesting. It is 1915, at Cagnes-sur-Mer on the Cote d’Azur; a teenage girl, Andrée Heuschling, arrives at the country house of the great artist—who, at 74, is freshly widowed, and in failing health. (Confined to a wheelchair, he must have brushes taped to his badly arthritic hands in order to paint.) She’s ostensibly there to join the household staff, yet such is her physical beauty—with her lustrous cascade of red hair, her pale, nearly luminous skin, she looks like one of the master’s paintings made flesh—that she is unsurprised when he asks her to model for him.

Soon the household is further disturbed by the return of Renoir’s 21-year-old son Jean—in nearly as bad shape as his father, thanks to a recent battlefield injury which has almost cost him his left leg. Rudderless, angry at the world and at himself, Renoir fils dabbles at various things: he paints a little, he works in ceramics"¦ Mostly, though, he yearns to return to the Front, to his comrades in the Alpine 6th Battalion, whom he feels he has abandoned to their fate.

Gradually, though, he discovers the cinema, and experiences a spark of inspiration that will see him become one of the finest, greatest filmmakers of all time. He also, inevitably, notices the beautiful Andrée. (As he would: she’s naked, posing en plein air, when he first lays eyes on her.) And so, the father’s final muse becomes the son’s first. (Under her stage name, Catherine Hessling, Andrée went on to star in half-a-dozen of Jean’s films. They married in 1920, a year after Renoir the elder’s death, and separated 11 years later, reportedly after Jean refused to cast her as the lead in his production of La Chienne; the role went to Janie Marèse. She acted in a handful of other films before retiring from the screen, and withdrawing from public life, in 1936.)

Indeed, it’s to the credit of the script (by Jerome Tonnerre and Bourdos—and adapted from a memoir by the artist’s great-grandson Jacques), that Andrée is presented in such an un-idealised, not to say unsympathetic light throughout. High-handed and imperious with her colleagues among the staff, calculating in the disposal of her affections, she has her eyes fixed firmly and solely on improving her station. A one-note characterisation, perhaps, but it’s at least a discordant one—in sharp contrast to the overweening tastefulness otherwise on display.

Especially noteworthy is the casting, as Renoir pére, of Michel Bouquet, a living link to a vanished golden age of French cinema. Bouquet worked with Clouzot, with Chabrol (many times, in fact), with Jeans Delannoy, Grémillon and Aurel; his was the voice which narrated Alain Resnais’ classic 1955 short Night and Fog. You could call him an old pro, except that he’s free of the apathy that term implies. Like two of his fellow octogenarians, Michael Lonsdale and Michel Piccoli, he’s never succumbed to laziness, never conveys the sense of simply going through the motions. Instead, he brings a sharp, penetrating intelligence to every role—and here, as the crippled artist, a man in the white winter of his age, he conveys a powerful sense of the artistic temperament, of undiminished appetites and passions trapped within a failing physical shell.

As Andrée, Christa Theret is fine—all bee-stung lips and come-hither pout, though as the narrative unwinds, in its overly-languid second half, she’s frequently obliged to do no more than look ravishing and/or sulky in various states of undress. Which, for the record, she does. And while I’m not sure how the chiselled cheekbones of Vincent Rottiers relate to the rather doughier features of the real Jean Renoir, his performance here is perfectly serviceable.

Ultimately, though, all the old criticisms of poor Pierre-August hold true for this movie. It looks gorgeous, thanks largely to the extraordinary talent of its cinematographer, Ping Bing Lee, justly renowned for his work with Hou Hsiao-hsien and Wong Kar-wai (he shot most of In the Mood For Love); after all, as any Impressionist would tell you, you’re only as good as your lighting. But it’s also bland, middle-class, unchallenging, dull. If you love the paintings, therefore, chances are you’ll adore it.

all the old criticisms of poor Pierre-August hold true for this movie