Film Review – Renoir
Renoir is well acted and beautifully shot, and it’s rare that this is a detriment to a film, but in Renoir, that’s all there is. The film feels so leaden and clinical. It’s a dull, stately affair. Such is the primary pitfall of biopics. It sure is beautiful to look at, though. But then you’d expect a film about one of the world’s premier Impressionist painters to include a sumptuous color palette—and this is the overriding fault of the film: everything is expected.
It begins with a girl with orange-red hair, in an orange-red dress, riding her bike past black-clad women in mourning to a gate beyond which lies the vast seaside estate of the dying Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Renoir the elder is arthritic to such a degree that he needs his paints poured out for him, his brushes bound to his hands, and ice water poured over his knuckles between paintings. He pushes on nonetheless because painting is his life, his passion. The girl on the bike, Andrée, has come to be his latest (and last) muse, and is played as a petulant free spirit by Christa Théret. Michel Bouquet, a French film icon, plays the French Impressionist icon as a steadfast soul hindered only by his decaying flesh, who, if he lost the use of his hands, says he would simply begin to paint with a southward member of his anatomy.
Enter Jean Renoir, home from the war on convalescent leave. The handsome Vincent Rottier is cast as Jean, who was homely in real life and whose dashing appearance in the film is most likely meant to make the romance between him and Andrée more palatable. It just makes it rote. A little more character would have spiced it up. As it is, Rottier is wooden and aimless, a boy with not much fire behind his eyes. This is hard to imagine of one of cinema’s towering icons: the director of such great films as Grand Illusion and The Rules of the Game. And Jean and Andrée’s love is supposed to be the driving force of the film, but it feels flat and inauthentic.
There are some moments of poignantly nuanced detail, but they are few and scattered, as when we see Claude, Pierre-August’s youngest son, stare at a hung rabbit being bled, or poking at a dead creature in the forest. He has hung pictures of war all over the walls of his room, and you realize this boy is obsessed with death because he’s surrounded by it, by two brothers wounded at the front and a father who is deteriorating from age and arthritis. That such character-establishing detail went into such a minor character and not the major players is a telling symptom of the film’s faults.
The film spends most of its running time instead on gorgeously lit picnics and dinners, and on scenes of Renoir painting a naked Andrée against a wilderness of vibrant beauty. The director, Gilles Bourdos, hired infamous art forger Guy Ribes to be “the hands” of Renoir in the close-up scenes of paintings taking form and, to be honest, these are truly a wonder. To watch a simple, curved line create a weight and dimension out of thin air on canvas is amazing, and a true testament to the painter’s talent. Bourdos also hired the extremely talented cinematographer Mark Ping Bing Lee, who performs exquisitely. The film is shot perfectly. There isn’t a scene that doesn’t look painterly, where the colors aren’t vibrant and saturated and lush. But all of this greatness is lost on an inert script that feels more like a skeletal outline than a fully fleshed out story.
And what is frustrating is that there’s so much there to work with. The story of one generation’s artistic giant passing the torch to his son who would be the next generation’s artistic giant, and the muse who ignited the creative fire in both of them, is rife with creative possibilities. They were both groundbreaking artistic figures who redefined the form in both of their mediums, but this film is so utterly conventional. What it explores it doesn’t explore in new and interesting ways, and it only skims the surface. What could have been a complex story concerning the ideas of one generation losing sway with the ideals of the newer generation, of the significance of inspiration to an artist, is reduced to a beautifully filmed pageant of scenes in the life of the Renoir family during the father’s decline and the son’s rise. It utterly misses the point of both of their lives: that art needed to be beautiful, yes, but also moving, that it needed to mean something, to have purpose, and not be simply something pretty to look at.
Final Grade: C