I sense a trend. Film factories are green lighting fact-based stories pivoting on the intersection of two historically significant lives and then placing the focus on the less compelling personality. A prime example of an American production which made this error is the baseball bio 42. In the big picture, Branch Rickey’s career is less significant but infinitely more fascinating than Jackie Robinson’s. Proving Europeans have not developed an immunity is Gilles (Afterwards) Bourdos’ improbably pointless Renoir.
Oddly, films about artists who achieve immense success almost always fail. Whether the subject’s a painter, musician or a writer, the movie never seems to capture the qualities which made the artist worth making a movie about in the first place and rarely offers convincing insight into his or her process. So, in actuality, the French writer-director’s latest is up against a pair of problematic tendencies-one new, the other old as the biopic itself. Herculean creative prowess would be required to out swim cultural riptides that overwhelming and let’s be frank: Bourdos is lucky to be out of the kiddie pool; he hasn’t nearly got what it takes to play in the deep end. The result? A picture which succumbs to both pitfalls.
The two historically significant characters in this case share a last name. The film takes place in 1915 and is set on the shores of the French Riviera where the 74 year old impressionist master, Pierre-Auguste Renoir (Michel Bouquet) is living out his final years. Recently widowed, he’s inspired to pick up his palette again by the arrival of a 15 year old model referred by Matisse. Christa Theret plays Andree Heuschling, a young woman whose beauty masked a host of psychological red flags. It’s evident she has vague notions of using her brush with celebrity to finagle some sort of personal fame but, until the painter’s son returns from the war, it’s unclear to her how lying around naked all day will help in achieving her career goal.
Enter Jean Renoir (Vincent Rottiers), the great man’s 21 year old middle son. You can practically hear the gears whirling in Heuschling’s head the moment they lock eyes. Here’s a handsome hero who stands to inherit a fortune and hasn’t yet figured out what he wants to do with his life. She sees him as ripe for moulding and begins by offering motivational bon mots like “You have to seize everything life has to offer.”
So there’s your problem: Bourdos’ rendering of the elder Renoir is boilerplate almost to the point of parody. The movie’s a compilation of lifeless sequences in which the painter dashes off masterpieces amid picture perfect surroundings. We learn nothing about his life or oeuvre and anyone seeking psychological insight must make do with fromage such as “You can’t explain a painting-you have to feel it.” The filmmaker offers a portrait of the artist as an old fart because he’s chosen to portray him during the least dynamic phase of his life.
He’d have done better to give us a glimpse of the man revolutionizing the art form in his prime or, better yet, trained his lens instead on the son. Once Jean decided what he wanted to do, he did it and in a big way. He chose the camera over the brush and became one of the most accomplished directors in history. Orson Welles considered him the greatest of all time. Entertainment Weekly voted him the most important French director ever. And who starred in his first films? Yup, the young lady with all that naked ambition. Now that would’ve made a ripping yarn.
Here’s one thing Bourdos did get right: He hired famed forger Guy Ribes, filmed close ups of his hands painting in Renoir’s style and intercut them into scenes depicting the master at work. A really smart touch. The movie could have used a great many more