Renoir (Gilles Bourdos - France) 111 minutes
Gilles Bourdos’s Renoir is not a biopic in any real sense of the word but rather a recounting of the summer of 1915 when the young Jean Renoir (Vincent Rottier) - not yet a film director but a budding actor - spent time on sick leave from the front at his father’s Côte d’Azur home. The film flits between painter father Pierre-Auguste and Jean, which might leave some less cinephile viewers feeling short-changed. That said, it is a thoughtful meditation on Renoir père’s twilight years, where his legacy is already being eroded by the tumultuous changes taking place in Europe and the advance of technological reproduction of the sort that will make his son equally famous.
The fulcrum of the drama is the young Andrée Heuschling, who arrives at the Renoir house in the opening scene, to begin work as the painter’s model. A previous model, presumably too sensual by half, has just been dismissed by Madame Renoir, but just as Andrée crosses the threshold, we learn that the lady of the house has passed away. The grieving Renoir takes to Andrée immediately, rhapsodising that Titian would have loved her buxom, auburn beauty. Michel Bouquet plays the septuagenarian artist with genial patience, a man whose pride in artisanal work has long ago morphed into a William Morris-esque axiom. He is sceptical of Jean’s thespian ambitions but does not oppose them. The idyll he maintains at his Riviera home and studio is beset by the death of his wife, his own health troubles and the war that, however distant, intrudes into his tranquil life.
Jean woos Andrée and wins her without much difficulty (she would be his lover for the next sixteen years and he would make her a star of the French silent screen) but he still resolves to return to war, racked as he is with guilt at leaving his friends dying at the front. This leads to a temporary separation between the two — they are reunited when he discovers her working as a prostitute at an officers’ cabaret in Paris. Meanwhile, Pierre-Auguste begs her to return, unable to paint without her.
Renoir is a modest enough film and doesn’t tell you much new about the lives of either father or son but its quiet drama is ably mounted and avoids sliding into period picturesque (I have to say the film’s tie-in promotion with L’Occitane en Provence made me fear the worst). The only jarring note is Christa Theret as Andrée — she makes a game stab at the young model but she remains far too much a contemporary parisienne to convince as an early-twentieth-century Provençal peasant girl.