By Michael Calleri
Niagara Gazette — According to the new movie “Renoir,” the Impressionist master Pierre-Auguste Renoir believed that art was more important than war.
When his son Jean wanted to return to the front during World War I, after recuperating from injuries at the family’s house in the south of France, the elder Renoir tried to discourage him by insisting that it was always vital to create art, but that under certain circumstances, blindly obeying decisions made for the flag of a country was an act that should be challenged.
The celebrated painter was the father of three sons, all of whom would play important roles in French culture. The oldest was Pierre, a stage and film actor most famous for his Jericho the ragman character in “Les Enfants du Paradis” from 1945. The middle boy was the aforementioned Jean, who would go on to direct movies, including one of the greatest films ever made, “The Rules Of The Game” (1939). Claude, the youngest son (nicknamed Coco), would become a movie producer and also have a career as a noted ceramic artist. One of Pierre-Auguste’s grandsons, also named Claude, would be a vital cinematographer in France’s motion picture industry.
“Renoir” is a period piece that shimmers with the colors of the artist’s paintings. Renoir was obsessed with the beauty he saw around him. He found completely satisfying purpose in life by capturing that beauty on canvas. The film, thanks to the breathtaking work of Taiwan’s master cinematographer Mark Ping Bing Lee, is one of the most beautiful movies I’ve seen.
The film takes place in 1915 in Cagnes-sur-Mer on the French Riviera, where the widowed artist is surrounded by women: former models for his paintings, former lovers, and a household staff. They all tend to the 74-year old Auguste’s needs. For him to keep painting, he must be happy and calm. During this bucolic summer idyll, Renoir would struggle with the arthritis that was crippling his hands and paint virtually day and night. Son Coco lives with him, and to Renoir’s mournful dismay, the other boys are fighting in the war. The artist is a national treasure.
Jean’s return will coincide with the recent appearance of a new model for his father’s paintings. The young woman, Andree, is as stunning a redhead as Jean has ever seen. Of course, his father has seen every inch of her voluptuous body. The modeling work is important to her because the money earned will get her to Paris, where she wants to sing and possibly act in the cinema. Jean is as smitten as any human can be.
A nice touch is when future filmmaker Jean takes Andree to see silent movies. On almost every level, “Renoir” is as much about the inspiration for making art as it is about creating it. Coco is put to work mounting new canvases on which his father will work as the elderly man immerses himself in the beauty of his muse.
Pierre-Auguste recognizes that he may not have long to live. He pushes himself to capture the moments in which later generations would take pleasure. He would die four years later.
Director Gilles Bourdos understands and appreciates Renoir’s vision and his relentless desire to paint his interpretation of the world around him. His movie deftly blends the serenity of Renoir’s art, nicely capturing his method of painting, with the energy generated by Jean’s love for Andree and her single-minded desire to reap the rewards of her stay at Chez Renoir. For her part, she pushes Jean to be independent.
The uncomplicated screenplay is by Bourdos, Michel Spinosa, Jerome Tonerre, and yet another Renoir, the painter’s great-grandson, the photographer and cinematographer Jacques.
Renoir is wonderfully played by Michel Bouquet with a beard that is a character all its own. You understand the artist’s passion to create. A wonderful Vincent Rottiers is sweetly naïve as Jean. You feel for his eager love of Andree. Thomas Doret is quite good as his brother Coco, upset at the menial tasks he must do. Christa Theret expertly captures the beguiling and seductive nature of Andree, the impoverished newcomer who is driven by very strong ambitions. Theret is a perfect French fantasy woman.
The film was shot at the Renoir home, now a museum. Seventy-three paintings by Renoir were duplicated by the convicted art forger Guy Ribes, one of the most celebrated fakers of all time. The pleasant and unobtrusive music was composed by five-time Oscar nominee Alexandre Desplat.
“Renoir” is about the permanence of art in an ever-changing world. The sun shines as war ravages Europe. The inspired Pierre-Auguste will paint treasures from his “Bathers” series. Young love dances its dance in a lush setting. The captivating movie engages you the way few do.Michael Calleri reviews films for Night and Day. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.