“Renoir” opens Friday at Sundance Cinemas. R, 1:51, three stars out of four
If only Pierre-Auguste Renoir had the colors at his disposal that director Gilles Bourdos has in making a movie about him. The French drama, set at Renoir’s country estate on the French Riviera, practically vibrates with beautiful colors, mostly bright oranges intertwining with deep greens. One shot, in which the famous Impressionist painter dips a dirty brush in a clear glass of water, and the vermillion paint swirls like flames inside the glass, is so gorgeous you almost have to look away.
It’s that eye-popping surface that is the real star of “Renoir,” although the film is an agreeable if shallow look at the great artist in the twilight of his years. At 74, Renoir (Michel Bouquet) is confined to a wheelchair; he could probably still walk, but it would take a lot of effort, and that effort he wants to pour into his last paintings. Renoir is prone to grand pronouncements about the nature of art, such as the prettiness of his paintings (“There are enough disagreeable things in life. I don’t need to create more.”) but beneath that crusty facade is a man with a purely carnal streak, obsessed with the glow and texture of a woman’s skin. His household is full of former models, who became maids as they aged, and it’s understood that Renoir knew more than one of them in an artistic sense.
The latest model to come to him is Andree (Christa Theret), a beautiful and tempestuous young woman who inspires him on the canvas and in his heart. The film lingers on scenes of Renoir painting her, and the process is quite fascinating to watch, as he draws quick brushstroke curves on the canvas, seeming to will them to converge into the natural curves of the human form.
Then Renoir gets another visitor, his middle son Jean (Vincent Rottiers). Jean is on leave after being injured in World War I, and yearns to be back with his comrades on the front lines. Cinephiles will know that Jean someday becomes a great film director (“Rules of the Game,” which just played at UW Cinematheque a couple of weeks ago). But there’s not really much more than a hint of that in “Renoir,” other than the dreamy look Jean gets on his face when he sees a silent film projected on the wall.
Jean and Andree fall for each other, of course, and I found their whole romance kind of trite, especially when they tussle about whether he should go back to the war. Pierre-Auguste is by far the most interesting Renoir of the bunch, and “Renoir” is much better in those quiet, lovely scenes of him painting, his crinkled eyes observing, the occasional pronouncement croaking forth from somewhere deep beyond that majestic beard. Bouquet makes him an imposing figure, but finds a twinkling humor beneath his fearsomeness.
When his doctor asks him what he’ll do when his hands are too old and shaky to paint with, Renoir responds flatly, “I’ll paint with my dick.” Which, the film suggests, he always has.