Renoir aims to do for the great Pierre-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 waking moment — and some sleeping ones — at the easel, tended to by half a dozen female cooks, maids, nurses and helpers.
That’s the world Andree 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.
Coco dutifully, grumpily whitewashes and mounts fresh canvases, and old Auguste starts studying his latest muse, whose “velvety” skin — all of it — is great inspiration.
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.
Bouquet’s Renoir is old and single-minded about his art, and little else. It’s not a twinkling, grandfatherly interpretation, nor is this an “artist as ogre,” the way Picasso is typically portrayed. 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. Rottiers delivers a guarded, vulnerable performance, and Theret gives Andree a pouty sullenness that suits someone who expects to get by on beauty and has no notion that it won’t last forever.
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. The sight of old Auguste carried, in his chair, by four or more women as he ventured to this setting or that one (a creek-side picnic, for instance) is both comical and inspiring. All these people dedicated to helping this old master fulfill his artistic destiny.
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 he passed his artistic ambitions and work habits on to those around him, right up to the end.