'Renoir' paints old man surrounded by beauty and loyalty
“Renoir” aims to do for the great Auguste Renoir what “The Last Station” did for Leo Tolstoy. It's a lovely, painterly period piece that mimics the colors of Renoir's art, but one that never manages to find the warm, beating heart of the man.
His paintings inspired passion in art galleries and museums, and in those who surrounded him and tended to his needs as he soldiered on, ravaged by old age, hell-bent on capturing more “beauty” at the expense of all else in his life.
Renoir (Michel Bouquet) spent his last years on the French Riviera, newly widowed, but surrounded by women — ex-models, ex-lovers. One embittered teen son, Claude or “Coco” (Thomas Doret) lives at home, and Renoir mourns the others off fighting World War I. He's a national treasure, a simple craftsman who learned his art painting porcelain dishes — piece-work. Now, his hands gnarled by arthritis, he spends every moment at the easel.
That's the world Andrée Heuschling (Christa Theret), a stunning young redhead, discovers when she shows up to model for him. She is poor, but with the haughty arrogance of beauty. She longs to sing, to act in the cinema. She'll model here to get the money to go to Paris and do that.
Then another son, Jean (Vincent Rottiers), comes home, wounded at the front. And he tries to fight his yearning for Andree, even as she's brazenly sizing him up as her ticket out of there.
Bouqet's Renoir is old and single-minded about his art, and little else. He's just this bland old working-class man in a rush to capture beauty.
The chief interest held by the romance is the knowledge that the smitten Jean Renoir would watch flickering silent movie serials with Andree and the others and go on to become one of the giants of the French cinema.
Filmmaker Gilles Bourdos gets an absorbing movie out of this by delving into the elder Renoir's method, his solo sketch studies leading to great paintings, even when he was in pain.
“Renoir” isn't a great film, robbed as it is of an artist with the bigger-than-life dimensions of a Van Gogh, Picasso or Gauguin. But it holds our interest with the ways Bourdos gets across the vision and mania for capturing all the beauty left to him that Renoir had, and the ways his passed his artistic ambitions and work habits on to those around him, right up to the end.
Roger Moore is a movie critic for McClatchy-Tribune News Service.