Renoir is a portrait of the artist Pierre-Auguste Renoir (Michel Bouquet) as an old man: He’s 74 in the summer of 1915, and those years have taken a toll. Another would-be model, Andree (Christa Theret), has arrived at his doorstep to provide new inspiration, and his fertile mind is still plump with ideas for painting studies. But physically, the master painter – a founder of the Impressionism movement – is a shadow of his former self. A coterie of admiring staff carries him to tranquil settings so he can paint, and a crippling case of arthritis has turned his hands into something resembling the knotty roots of a very old tree.
As Renoir paints, searching for a masterpiece amid the French countryside, Gilles Bourdos’ film offers a lush but mannered glimpse into the painter’s late life – quiet, painful at times, but bursting with creativity.
Under its quiet and contemplative veneer, Renoir is a love triangle of sorts – between the elder Renoir, his middle son Jean (Vincent Rottiers), and Andree, who is expected by all to fall under the thrall of the painter like so many models before her, but who instead becomes attracted to Jean. The younger Renoir – only at the tinkering stage of a filmmaking career that will soon make him one of the great early talents of cinema – has returned home from World War I with crippling injuries of his own. During his slow recuperation, he and Andree slowly, tentatively connect.
There’s nothing salacious about their relationship; rather, Bourdos (who co-wrote the film with Michel Spinosa and Jérôme Tonnerre) presents their subtle furtiveness as something akin to good manners. As they move toward an affair and then to something more, she encourages him to pursue his filmmaking talents; but he can’t stop thinking about returning to the war.
The plot of Renoir is ultimately thin; it’s fascinating to watch the generational torch being passed between these two artists, but the participants’ actual onscreen journey is measured in inches more than yards. But it’s hard to complain about the film’s languorous pace, given the trio of strong central performances and one scene after the next of sumptuous visuals – fully in keeping with the earthy, color-soaked elegance of Renoir’s paintings. Cinematographer Mark Lee Ping Bin suffuses every scene with the buttery glow of sunlight streaming through open windows, or with pops of rich reds and oranges against fields of verdant green.
It’s difficult to watch Renoir and not want to compare the visual feast with the painter’s original works – probably the only aesthetic standard that can surpass this simply beautiful film.
Renoir. Starring Michel Bouquet, Vincent Rottiers and Christa Theret. Written by Gilles Bourdos, Michel Spinosa and Jérôme Tonnerre. Directed by Bourdos. Rated R (under 17 not admitted without parent), for mild language and art-inspired nudity. Rating: 8 out of 10