“Renoir” aims to do for the great 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.
Bouqet’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. Rottier delivers a guarded, vulnerable performance, and Theret gives Andree a pouty sullenness that suits someone who expects to get by on beauty.
* * * *
Cast: Michel Bouquet, Christa Theret, Vincent Rottiers
Director: Gilles Bourdos
Running time: 1:51
Rated: R; sequences of art-related nudity and brief language