‘Renoir’: pretty pictures, without much point
The Aspen Times
Watching “Renoir,” by French filmmaker Gilles Bourdos, I had the vague feeling that I was seeing something familiar, and when it clicked in, the feeling was no longer vague. As the credits for “Renoir” rolled, I thought of the recent “Hyde Park on Hudson,” and in an instant the similarities hit me.
“Renoir” is set in the early 20th century; “Hyde Park on Hudson” is, as well, though two decades later. Both are situated entirely in a picturesque, rural spot, where rural is a luxury rather than a hardship. Both play out against a backdrop of war, with actual warfare kept at a great distance. Both center around a famous but frail man — the aged Impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir in one; the wheelchair-bound President Franklin Roosevelt is the other — and both play up the eccentricities of the man and look at the man from an unexpected angle. Both films are romances but hardly in the traditional sense; the romances themselves are far from the usual. Wives in both stories are presences but, in different ways, are background figures.
And most significant, both “Renoir” and “Hyde Park on Hudson,” while enjoyable enough, left me asking the same question: Why is this story being told? And what, in fact, is the story being told?
“Renoir” begins with a woman, Andree (Christa Theret), a young beauty with red hair, a strong will and an artistic bent. She appears at the home, on the French Riviera, of the 70-something Renoir (Michel Bouquet). The celebrated artist is largely confined to a chair, but his creative force is strong, and he happily allows Andree to pose for him, repeatedly, clothing not recommended.
The focus here is blurry: Is this the portrait of the artist — prickly, quiet, forceful — or the model — ambitious, headstrong, naive about her role in Renoir’s home? Or is it about the odd relationship between the two?
Enter Renoir’s son Jean (Vincent Rottiers), who will, in time, become the noted filmmaker Jean Renoir, though that is another story (and, one hopes, a clearer one). The arrival of Jean should sharpen the focus. He is an injured soldier, handsome, brave and young, and he and Andree fall for each other. And there we should have our story. But the romance is never given a great sense of purpose by director Bourdos, who wants to explore the relationship between Renoir père et fils and the ongoing entanglement between Andree and the older Renoir and the character of the turbulent Andree and artistic temperaments generally and perhaps another dozen things. Through the muddle, something emerges about individuals determining and finding their true course in life.
“Renoir” is amiable enough; the scenery and the women who populate it are beautiful and beautifully filmed. The characters are full of potential. In Renoir’s paintings, small elements that would be insignificant on their own come together to create a dazzling whole. “Renoir” is nearly the opposite.
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