Catherine Hessling was born Andrée Madeleine Heuschling in the north-eastern department of Marne, in France. During the outbreak of World War I she sought refuge in the region of Nice, where due to her astonishing good looks she caught the attention of Henri Matisse who immediately thought of her as a “Renoir beauty” and sent her to pose for his friend Pierre-Auguste, who had moved to the Côte d’Azur years before to try and improve his health.
Throughout the years, the young woman would serve as model for some of Renoir’s most breathtaking latter work, including “Blonde a la rose” from 1917 and would then become the first wife of his son Jean, who would go on to become one of the most influential filmmakers of the twentieth century. There was undoubtedly something special about this woman, but what that was goes completely amiss in Gilles Bourdos’ Renoir.
When we first meet Andrée (Christa Theret) she is walking towards Renoir’s estate full of determination and purpose. She knocks at the door and announces she was sent by Mrs. Renoir to pose for her husband. The servants find this strange but the painter (played by Michel Bouquet) receives her warmly and after examining her in a short interview he tells her that his wife has been dead for years. The young woman doesn’t change her attitude and somehow it seems that she has enchanted the artist who asks her to come back and pose for him some other time. He gives her five francs for her trouble and as she walks out the door she tells him she is used to receiving ten.
Upon her return she disrobes and seemingly bothered by the fact that Renoir isn’t admiring her beauty more, she asks if he is uncomfortable, to which he replies that if he was, he’d stick to painting apples. “What I like is the skin, the velvety skin of a young girl” he says without taking his eye away from the canvas and we see how effortlessly he sketches and then paints her. Famous forger Guy Ribes was hired to recreate the paintings onscreen and in a way his very presence sums up the fact that this film is all about reverential artifice.
As the young woman continues posing for Renoir, we see how he is affected by her presence, but we only know this because we are told about it in strange dream sequences in which he talks to his dead wife. Everything is right there on the surface for us to see, there is nothing left to the imagination and as such the film doesn’t make justice to Renoir’s work in any way other than by reminding us of its beauty. While it was certainly breathtaking, Renoir’s work had much more substance than whatever met the eye, just from his technique alone one can draw endless interpretations about the way in which he saw the world.
His choice of subjects is touched upon in a very superficial way when a character asks him why he doesn’t depict war or death, to which he wisely “there are enough annoying things in life, so I don’t make more”. The film’s saddest flaw is how it fails to connect with viewers, because it’s entirely too preoccupied with making everything look gorgeous. There is not a single ugly frame in this picture, but none are ever really interesting.
Even when drama is added to the plot, in the shape of the arrival of Jean (Vincent Rottiers) from the war, the result is unusually dull. The young man falls hard for Andrée but fears she has already been in his father’s bed. What could’ve led to some intriguing Shakespearean drama makes way instead for soap opera twists that are too self conscious and serious to engage us.
Bourdos, who co-wrote the screenplay with Jérome Tonnerre and Michel Spinosa, seems to have had the spark of a superb idea (two of the world’s most influential artists, who are also father and son, fight over the same woman!) but in the end the way in which he expresses the story makes no favors to any of the characters involved. If you don’t know about the Renoirs history by the end of the film you’d have no clue why it was important to learn about Andrée. The fact is that in the movie, not even she seems aware of why she is.
Renoir is presented in a magnificent transfer and the cinematography does deserve to be seen on the clearest screen available. Bonus features include short interviews with the filmmakers and the cast who, as usual, sell the movie in a way that sounds so fascinating, we can’t help but be endlessly disappointed with what ended up onscreen.