Film Review: Renoir

As gorgeous as it is leisurely and contemplative, this appropriately magnificent and impressionistic portrait of the elderly Pierre-Auguste Renoir in 1915 will delight art-house fans, especially those welcoming the return of French star Michel Bouquet

Director Gilles Bourdos delivers a gem of a movie with Renoir, a deeply cinematic immersion into France’s lushly pastoral Côte d’Azur where Pierre-Auguste Renoir lived out his years. So much more than the exquisite scenery on view, the film affords an affecting consideration of love lost, love kindled and the mysteries of creativity and impending death. Themes aside, nothing is heavy here. Insights are as subtle but deeply felt as the film’s colorful daubs of Renoir paintings (real and recreated).

Renoir (Claude Chabrol favorite Michel Bouquet) continues to paint in his busy and spacious French Riviera villa surrounded by a caring group of women, some maybe former models and lovers, and all assigned various chores. Also in this unusual household mix is 13-year-old Coco (Thomas Doret), the painter’s young son who scurries around amidst this extended female family. The vibrant and attentive company aside, the master painter still grieves for his late wife. But the arrival of fiery, uninhibited Andrée, aka Dédé, (Christa Théret), another very young Renoir model (who will be his last), becomes for him a distinct distraction and source of new energy and inspiration.

Soon, 21-year-old son Jean (Vincent Rottiers), who has been wounded in the Great War, returns to the homestead, although he’s eager to get back into the fray. Again in subtle strokes, Jean (who will go on to become one of France’s greatest film directors) and Andrée become lovers, perhaps creating what will be a father-son conflict. But the film doesn’t go there because Bourdos is determined to keep Renoir père as the calming ballast for this lovely cinematic vessel.

Recalling the many cinematic adaptations of Marcel Pagnol’s Provencal stories, Renoir delivers intoxicating pastoral sweeps of landscapes and the accompanying sounds. Sparkling olive tree leaves and the sounds of birds and insects abound. The film moves slowly but seductively (with a bounty of nudity), yet there may be some cinephiles not entirely satisfied by the somewhat bland incarnation of son Jean. He is established as somewhat shell-shocked and missing the camaraderie of war, but he emits few signs of the passionate, socially committed, humanistic filmmaker he will become. Théret‘s Andrée, on the other hand, suggests the infatuation for movies and desire to perform that will make her one of Jean Renoir’s first stars.

But it’s Bouquet’s haunting performance as Renoir, who reveals so much in a final scene about what is really on the director’s mind, that makes the film all the more worthwhile.