Renoir (Cert 12)
1 Disc (Distributor: Soda Pictures) Running Time: 107 minutes approx.
1915 Côte d’Azur and Pierre-Auguste Renoir (Michel Bouquet) is in his twilight years, his painting suffering from increasing arthritis, while his inspiration has gone, following the death of his wife and his son Jean (Vincent Rottiers) being injured while fighting in the war.
Renoir Sr then receives a visit from a free spirited young woman named Andrée Heuschling (Christa Théret) recommended by a friend as a model. Quickly Andrée’s beauty and vitality reawakens Renoir Sr’s artistic mojo while a relationship with Jean ignites his nascent desire to become a film maker.
The name “Renoir” is likely to invoke a response of two different answers – “Oh, the painter?” or “Oh the filmmaker?” – depending on your artistic leanings. This film is actually about both of them, or more accurately about the woman who bridges the careers of these celebrated artists as the respective last and first muse to them both.
However due in part to its First World War setting and the depiction of the last years of Renoir Sr this is less a celebration and more of a melancholic farewell to one Renoir with the seeds planted for the other to make his mark on the arts.
Offsetting the ugliness of Renoir Sr’s ailment and the ravages of war is the vivacious presence and pale skinned beauty of Andrée, who was the real life model and later actress wife of Jean Renoir, better known as Catherine Hessling. Her flowing mane of red hair matches her fiery personality and it is this self-confidence and naturally vibrant aura that reinvigorates Renoir Sr’s passion for the paint palette, leading to his resuming his famous nudes collection.
But Andrée seems to be a woman of some high ambition as we learn later that she expects payment for being a live in model, a harsh lesson she learns from the loyal maids of the home, some of whom are also ex-models.
Meanwhile, Andrée sends mixed messages to Jean when he arrives although his immediate attraction is obvious for everyone to see. However like his father, Jean has high personal standards of own and as much as Andrée’s effervescence and modern perspicacity is an allure for him, he can sense her independent nature is likely to cause a problem. Yet it is Jean’s insistence of re-enlisting after recuperating his injury that drives the biggest wedge between them.
And that is essentially the plot of this – pardon the pun – picturesque biopic. Slow in tempo and progress this is a film for those with patience and who enjoy lush, beautifully shot visuals. The closest we get to anything that raises the pace to moderate is when Andrée throws a wobbly in the kitchen and breaks a few plates; otherwise even the most unpleasant disagreements are played out with immense restraint. And with the scenes of the genius painter juxtaposed by his constant suffering of his ailing health, which he punctuates with maudlin barbs, this makes for a sadly tedious, if pleasing on the eye watch.
The opening shot is an orange clad Andrée cycling her way to the Renoir residence, taking us a guided tour of the French countryside in the process. From this moment onwards we are thrust right into this rural world, the swaying of the tree branches and the gravely crunch of the country pathways providing a palpably immersive experience for the viewer. As ever, the design team have remained faithful to every facet of the period setting so the journey back in time as ever a completely authentic one for the audience.
It is clear that director Gilles Bourdos and Taiwanese cinematography Ping Bing Lee were intent on recreating the spirit and rich colours of Renoir’s paintings on the screen and the time period allows this to happen more successfully had this been a modern day tale. However the colours on this DVD especially the reds and oranges are oversaturated – the latter almost omnipresent due to the glow of the summer sun, drenching the screen with a very distracting hue.
Since reviews of theatrical screenings praise the colour palette highly I can only assume something changed during the transfer to DVD (if it wasn’t intentional). Colour issues aside, the photography is luminous and the shots are all beautifully composed. One rather magical shot sees a paint brush dipped into the water jar, the residual orange paint dancing away from brush in balletic movements before spreading out like snaking tendrils. Sublime.
Surprisingly for the 12 certificate (but not the subject matter), there is a lot of nudity here largely courtesy of the curvaceous and arresting Christa Théret as Andrée. None of this is gratuitous with Andrée’s nakedness becoming as much a part of her character as her feisty personality. There is one tiny quibble in that the real Andrée was born in 1900, which makes her being a nude model as well as her adult behaviour a tad inappropriate for a fifteen year old, especially during this time period.
Veteran Michel Bouquet is largely irascible and immobile yet he does a marvellous job in keeping Renoir Sr’s spirit alive, as well as some masterful make-up to create a doppelganger look. Meanwhile for the painting scene, that task was given to convicted art forger Guy Ribes, who one has to assume made the mistake of signing his own name to his forgeries, since his work is astounding.
Rounding off the main trio is Vincent Rottiers as Jean, arguably the weakest of the three, unable to find any kind of spark within his character to establish a connection with the audience. One the charisma front, Rottiers is embarrassingly outshined by the joyous supporting cast as Renoir’s maids.
Renoir works best as loving visual tribute rather than a profound or enlightening one. Well acted, well shot and well made, it does however crumble under the sad irony that the vigour of the respective works of the two titular legends is noticeably absent here.
French 5.1 & 2.0 audio
Rating – ***
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