The subject of the sumptuously photographed and artfully directed French film Renoir is not immediately apparent from the title. One might expect a biopic about Pierre-Auguste Renoir (Michel Bouquet), a key figure in the French impressionist movement. But the film has almost as much to tell us about Pierre’s son Jean (Vincent Rottiers), a skilled artist in his own right who would go on to become one of the world’s most influential movie directors by creating such critically acclaimed classics as Grand Illusion and The Rules of the Game. No matter. Renoir is less about artists than about the muses who inspire them.
The film centers on a young actress, Andrée Heuschling (Christa Theret), who in 1915 becomes the aging painter’s final model (he would die four years later). With her profusion of flaming-red hair, voluptuous curves, and shapely breasts, she looks like the inspiration for Botticelli’s Birth of Venus. Indeed, the notorious lecher’s brush is reborn through her, conveying her erotically suggestive poses with seamless fluidity. While committing her creamy form to canvas, Renoir comments on the central tenets of the impressionist philosophy. Painting is less about lines than about colors, he says, and those colors should flow together as if they are making love—a viewpoint that the film dreamily illustrates through a slow-motion close-up of auburn paint swirling in the artist’s thinner jar.
Were Renoir père not an aged wheelchair-ridden cripple debilitated by rheumatoid arthritis, he might bed Andrée as he had Gabrielle (Romane Bohringer), an earlier model who contributed to his estrangement from Mme. Renoir. Alas, it is “too little, too late,” he pines as he embraces her with paternal tenderness, a gesture of their newfound platonic bond. In the swansong of his existence, she represents the fulfillment of his life’s work as a painter, the proverbial spring from which his inspiration flows.
The corporeal rewards she has to offer are left to Jean, who has just returned home from the Great War to recuperate from a leg injury. His service on the front lines seems to have sapped his youth’s vitality and dreams. But as he will soon find out, nothing can rekindle ambition like the airy brush of a woman’s velvety skin. Andrée is the apotheosis of a woman who has the power to stimulate both sexually and artistically, an isthmus joining the continents of father and son, youth and old age. As her father’s model, she stands before Jean as Eve before Adam, digging her teeth lustily into an apple. Their conversation turns to the consumption of art through the senses as they gaze out at the window at their verdant surroundings. The goal of the impressionistic artist is to make its viewers feel as if they are physically grasping the images, smelling them, devouring them. “Do you want to eat me?” she mischievously asks.
Lazily reclining in the grassy shade, they discuss another art: the movies. Unlike him, she is nagged by ambition, hoping to become an actress like the vamps from Louis Feuillade‘s landmark 1915 silent horror epic Les Vampires. Poor Jean’s thoughts, however, remain focused on the blackness of the bleak war-ravaged world outside their garden paradise. Yes, he will do what she asks as long as she waits for him to fulfill the honor he owes his country.
But for the time being, his memories are, like ours, lost in Lethe’s waters. The film’s lush setting—Renoir’s villa at Canges-sur-Mer in the Côtes d’Azur region of the French Riviera—represents an Eden-like shelter from the despair and bloodshed propagated by the war. If a painting could move, this is what it might look like: a susurrus tenderly fanning a sunlit-dappled tree canopy, the gentle ripples of a brook over a bed of pebbles, an azure sky graced with down. Immersion in such natural beauty is what spawns true art. Or, as the elder Renoir barks at his son, “All that concerns me is flesh!” That flesh is not only of the human kind; the film defines the term as encompassing all phenomena perceived through the senses, all pleasure that is an escape from the pain inflicted by the reality of the world.
Mais c’est le perspectif d’un artiste, n’est-ce pas? Renoir is that special kind of film that blends the sage and sensual in almost equal measure. It philosophizes but never dictates. It shows us gorgeous natural and human beauty but never drools over it. Like Chocolat, it’s a decadent chocolate-dipped strawberry treat of a film, only smarter.
Director Gilles Bourdos has an eye for the aesthetic in Renoir that I’ve scarcely witnessed in any other film (the emphasis on art for art’s sake reminded me of Terrence Malick‘s Day of Heaven). His vision could not have borne fruit, of course, without Mark Lee Ping Bin‘s meticulously crafted cinematography.
I’ve eaten my fill of talking. Time to close my eyes and imagine the summer breeze parting the strands of my fair one’s hair . . .
Joe’s Grade: A