[10 May 2013]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
The son following in the famous father’s footsteps. The woman that comes between them. A rivalry played out among the sun-dappled seashores of the South of France. The end of one startling career and the burgeoning promise of another. These are the elements that make up the nobly intended biopic Renoir. Helmed with a kind of holy reverence that borders on the inert, Gilles Bourdos look at the last few months in the life of painter Pierre-Auguste and the inspiration for son Jean’s desire to enter filmmaking feels like a glacier glanced through a prism of practical hero worship. There is nothing wrong with the narrative or actors, overall, but the film as a whole fails to engage us since the catalyst for our caring - the arrival of a bohemian actress/model redhead named Andrée Heuschling - is, in truth, a psychological cipher.
As she sits, bare breasted and oozing available sexuality, Christa Theret makes for a very fetching female idol. It’s not hard to see why the reinvigorated octogenarian (long time French cinema icon Michel Bouquet) is drawn to her. Needing some manner of muse to revitalize his dying creativity, her buxom bravura and hidden hedonism gives him much needed life. For Jean (a far too handsome Vincent Rottiers), the attraction is equally erotic, if a bit more abstract. He sees Andree as an equal, a kind of aesthetic match who finds the art inside of him and appears eager to help him unleash it. Their mostly platonic path crossings make up most of the movie’s intrigue. The rest is static tableaus set within the real Renoir estate, reminders of a time when fame and prestige could lead to something other than scandal and headlines.
In fact, Renoir could use more intrigue. It would benefit from a few drawing room misunderstandings and confrontations between lustful family members. As she bounces around from scene to scene, her mouth spewing all manner of early 20th century twaddle, Andree becomes a bit of a bore. Her demeanor may argue for a woman ripe with passion, but Bourdos deadens any sensuality with a more determined desire to make myth. One imagines that the Renoirs weren’t quite so polite, so considerate of each other’s raging hormonal longings. Since Andree is brought in to “spice things up,” if you will, her lack of any real appeal is near deadly. In fact, if it wasn’t for the minor insights we get into the creative process, this film would be nothing more than the filigree at the edge of a regal piece of jewelry.
It’s not the actors fault. Theret was clearly hired for her ability to look the part, but she leaves nothing behind once she leaves a scene. Her essence is literally absorbed by the various period piece elements. As for Rottiers, he’s a hard vision to accept. For those who are fans of the man who created such masterworks as Grand Illusion, Rules of the Game, and French Can-Can, he pales, and therefore fails, in comparison. One could argue that Renoir was a man of obvious large appetites. Even in his early days, he often depicted himself as the jolly, rotund fool, playing the comic foil in many of his films. Here, Rottiers remains a kind of Maxim catalog version of the auteur. Granted, he is still young, still serving in the military, but the actors bears none of the earmarks of an early Renoir.
Luckily, Bouquet is required to carry much of this movie and he does so with a kind of creepy ease. Because he is approximately the same age as Pierre-Auguste, he offers the same manner of world weary wisdom in his aged eyes. He just looks - and more importantly, feels - like an elderly artist, hands letting him down while a new strike of inspiration is waiting to be unleashed. The whole approach: the beard; the hat; the wheelchair; the household filled with servant girls…it approximates our own internal portrait of the man. Sure, the scenes with Andree have some spark, but that’s mostly from Bouquet. While Ms. Theret is busy attempting the minx, her decades-older superior is showing growing allure with a mere squint of his eyes.
For those who know nothing of the artist and his family, Renoir may seem like enlightenment. For students and fans, however, the treatment of both painter and potential filmmaker is superficial and slack. Yes, it all looks amazing, with golden slumber meadows and households straight out of an impressionist’s sketchbook, but Bourdos doesn’t have the first clue about extracting drama from same. He is so in love with the look of his movie that his misses opportunity after opportunity to infuse the vignettes with interpersonal power. Toward the end, when we know Jean is headed back to war, there is a minor moment of connection. But before then, Renoir is just a series of sequences where good looking people mimic enigmas from the past, performances bathed in an overemphasis on cinematography and style.
Again, for some, that will be more than enough. Others will be exasperated by the lack of true depth here. In fact, entire films could be made out of the older Renoir’s decline (and re-ascension) and Jean’s complicated relationship with his dad (Pops originally suggested his son pursue ceramics before they boy gave cinema a try). There may even be a better story of how Andree became the focal point for the director’s drive toward aesthetic achievement. Sadly, none of that is here. Instead, Renoir is one of those movies where all the pieces are in place for something intriguing and insightful. To that end, the film fails. In other aspects - visual, especially - the movie tries to make up for it. It doesn’t succeed.