by George Sax
Impressionism almost certainly has been the most popular of the painting styles that make up modernist art, the one the public has seemed to relate to most easily. So there’s a mild implicit aesthetic irony in Renoir, Gilles Bourdo’s visually beautiful film about the brief period in the late life of the great Impressionist Auguste Renoir (Michel Bouquet). The consumerist bourgeois who have coveted and purchased Impressionist work for over a century have also often misinterpreted the methods and intentions of Renoir, Monet, and others. These painters were attempting to depict perception of color and light and the psychological impression they make on a viewer. The art consumers, on the other hand, were taken with the frequently sunny, attractively colored and sometimes soft-edged imagery that resulted.
Movies really have no effective way to reproduce these effects. At one point, Bourdo and cinematographer Mark Ping Bing Lee indicate an awareness of the problem: The camera pans slightly leftward from a canvas in his famous Bathers series Renoir is working on and the models and background go out of focus to convey the melding of light and hue that the painter is envisioning.
Renoir is seductively, luminously beautiful in a largely non-Impressionistic way. It’s a portrait of the artist in winter, except that we’re given him living and working in gorgeous Cagnes-sur-Mer in southern France. It’s 1915 and Renoir’s health is dodgy. He has to be carried around his estate on a chair and his arthritic hand has to be strapped to a paint brush. The patriarch has lost his much-younger wife and his transactions with his four sons—two of them fighting in the war—are restricted by his frosty, abstracted personality. Into his menage of former models and lovers and female house staff comes Andrée (Christa Theret), looking for modeling work. She soon finds herself being a new muse for the artist, and not just for him. Young Jean (Vincent Rottiers) returns wounded to convalesce. The youth is, of course, the future internationally acclaimed movie director, already showing an interest in the new medium. And in Andrée. Even though she is at the apex of these triangulated relations, Bourdo’s rather haphazard narrative technique never even lets us in on where she came from. He’s much more successful at establishing mood. Renoir often moves at a languid, and interrupted pace. The underlying tensions in this genteelly bohemian family aren’t really bluntly addressed until near the movie’s end, and then they’re resolved a little superficially and sentimentally.
Renoir’s cast is effective within its dramatic limitations: Bouquet eventually invests the painter with some pathos; Rottiers gives quiet force to Jean’s frustrations and muted hope. And Theret makes a woman who might be only a modernist concept seem human.
Watch the trailer for Renoir
Issue Navigation> Issue Index > v12n19 (Week of Thursday, May 9) > Film Reviews > Renoir
This Week's Issue • Artvoice Daily • Artvoice TV • Events Calendar • Classifieds