Christa Theret as Andree Heuschling and Michel Bouquet as Pierre-Auguste… (Samuel Goldwyn Films )
"Renoir" is a lush, involving film that deals not with one Renoir but two, as well as the strong-minded woman who was a key player in both their lives.
The year is 1915, the setting the gorgeous landscape of the French Riviera, and Renoir the father, the recently widowed 74-year-old Impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste (the veteran Michel Bouquet), is hungry for inspiration.
His son, future filmmaker Jean Renoir, is only 21, a wounded World War I veteran come home to the family compound at Cagnes-sur-Mer to convalesce. Perhaps overwhelmed by his father, he is a bit of a dilettante, someone who by his own admission "dabbles in things," and he is looking for inspiration of a different sort.
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Both men find what they are searching for in gorgeous Andrée Heuschling (a convincing Christa Theret), but only up to a point. It's not that the men become rivals — the film is too sophisticated for that — but that the complexities of human relationships won't allow for anything more.
As directed by Gilles Bourdos (who co-wrote with Jérôme Tonnerre) and gorgeously photographed by Mark Ping Bing Lee (whose credits include Wong Kar-wai's "In the Mood for Love"), "Renoir" is classic French moviemaking with some modern twists.
This is one of those films that takes great pleasure in beautifully re-creating the past, in bringing to life the world of the elder Renoir, who lived for the pleasure the painting of beautiful women gave him.
"Flesh is all that matters," Renoir says more than once, and the film offers it in ample if chaste supply. Because filmmaker Bourdos wanted to make the actual creation of paintings a key part of the proceedings, he hired celebrated forger Guy Ribes and photographed his hands as they convincingly create in the Renoir style.
Cinematographer Lee also does a lovely job with the lush greenery of the landscape and with unexpected moments, such as the swirls of color in a glass of water as brushes are washed.
STORY: In 'Renoir,' first wife Andree Heuschling is far more than footnote
Don't let these descriptions of beauty mislead you, however. Impeccably played by the now 87-year-old Bouquet (a César winner for 2001's "How I Killed My Father"), the film's aging Renoir could be something of a domestic tyrant. He was also a man in great physical pain, so devastated by arthritis that the brushes had to be tied to his hands.
Into this world, with France devastated by WWI, comes the anarchic, free-spirited Andrée, claiming to have been sent by the painter's recently deceased wife. "A girl out of nowhere sent by a dead woman," is how Renoir accurately puts it.
With her glowing skin and long reddish-orange hair, Andrée is just what the artist has been looking for in a model, and he is amused, more than disconcerted, by her effrontery and independence.
For her part, Andrée doesn't quite know what to make of Renoir, but the nude modeling (which we see a lot of) is not particularly difficult and the pay is good, so she keeps showing up every day, carving out her own space in this difficult household, which includes the artist's rambunctious teenage son Coco (Thomas Doret).
Then Jean comes home to recover from a serious wound that has put him on crutches. Like his father, he is intoxicated by this woman, but their relationship is by definition going to be complicated. He first meets Andrée, for one thing, when she is nude and posing, and their relationship begins as a wary flirtation, each person afraid in their own way of being taken for granted.
Though their tastes differ (she prefers Chaplin, he Feuillade), one of the things that unites these two young people is a shared interest in movies, and the real Renoir later said he "took my first steps in cinema" with Andrée in mind.
"Renoir" the film posits something more, that this young model added drive to the son's personality. "You have to know who you are," she says to Jean at one point. "You have to seize everything life has to offer." And so he did.
MPAA rating: R for sequences of art-related nudity and brief language
Running time: 1 hour, 51 minutes
Playing: At Landmark, West Los Angeles; Playhouse 7, Pasadena; Town Center 5, Encino; Westpark 8, Irvine
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