A beautiful teenager (Christa Theret) bicycles along a dusty, uneven road, headed towards an isolated Midi estate. She abandons her bike at the gate, as if abandoning the present to enter the past, or perhaps the future. She is visibly hot, and uncertain of her destination, but confident of her reception as she introduces herself to household of painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir (Michel Bouquet) as Andrée Heuschling, the girl picked as the painter’s new model by his now dead wife.
His face hidden by the broad brim of his hat, his hands bound to prevent his brushes irritating his skin, Renoir watches Andrée move around his studio. After she returns the next day, and becomes a permanent part of the household, it’s plain she has elicited the affection of not only the painter but also of his son Jean (Vincent Rottiers), convalescent after the first battles of World War I and hardly able to know he will become a famous and influential filmmaker himself.
At first glance, Gilles Bourdos’ Renoir, currently platforming across the US, offers a familiar sort of artist’s biopic, charting the encounter of youthful muse and aging genius, such that she comes of age while experiencing the unequal clash of female insouciance and male power. This film adds extra plot, perhaps, in the competition of father and son, and also extra beauty, in cinematographer Mark Ping Bing Lee’s evocations of a prelapsarian Cote d’Azur.
But the movie considers issues in addition to the erotic tensions, the passing of an artistic baton from father to son or the seismic cultural shift from still images to those that move. Renoir also captures the cognitive dissonance that gripped Europe in the first year of the Great War. So geographically concentrated was the fighting, that life unfolded as usual for all but that still small minority who were losing sons, brothers, and fathers to the war. Renoir in Bourdos’ 1915 thinks he has escaped that fate, for both his older sons are so badly wounded that their returns to the front seem impossible. Thus the immersion in Renoir’s life is also an immersion in an undisturbed quotidian routine many Europeans, as privileged as Renoir, or as rural and isolated as the working women in his household, would enjoy throughout the war.
Here, change is visible in fragmentary glimpses of war, the broken down lorry carrying the wounded home that distracts Andrée as she cycles to Renoir’s home, the travelling huckster trying to exploit the desperation of the bereaved, and Jean’s own intoxication in the open cockpit of a primitive fighter. In a wordless scene, after Jean excoriates the conman for his plan to sell anonymous bodies in beautiful coffins to grief-stricken parents, Jean grabs the huckster’s top hat, filches a walking stick from his roadside display, and swirls down the dusty road in a ragged imitation of Charlie Chaplin’s iconic pose. One doesn’t need to know how much Jean Renoir loved the films of Chaplin, or how obsessively he watched them, to appreciate the joie de vivre of the gesture, and the transformative potential, at least for the male artists, of that medium to come.
This last caveat is crucial. And Renoir is quietly but brutally honest about the fates of the women who orbit these men. The four women who manage Renoir’s household, bathe him, clean for him, soothe him to sleep, dress him, bind his hands, cook for him, and even carry him to his distance studio, weren’t always domestic laborers, but were once like Andrée. They, too, were “muses,” exempt from all drudgery except the exposure on demand of that “velvety skin” their master craved, artistically and carnally. Now they are simply the anonymous maids, condemned to serve. And Andrée herself, seduced by the idea of being an artist but expressing neither passion nor visible talent, simply moves from the demi-monde of the artist’s model, as the elder Renoir’s muse, to the demi-monde of the silent movie ingénue as his middle son’s wife. She is as liable to be unceremoniously dumped at the appearance of the “next new thing” in the latter role as she might have been in the former. Men, whether before or after World War I, can drive forward at any age, while women can look forward only to decline and the dubious consolations of memory.
Of course, none of these broader themes is original, but Bourdos’ achievement in Renoir is his astringent evocation of the contradictions and elisions of sentimental artistic myth without denigrating the artistic visions themselves, however much they rely on the exploitation of others. At one point Renoir says, “A painting should be something pleasant and cheerful. There are enough disagreeable things in life. I don’t need to paint more.” The movie itself is a spirited riposte its subject’s willful myopia.