Movie Review: Renoir
Austin360.com | Austin American-Statesman
It is 1915 when Giles Bourdos’ gorgeous but slight “Renoir” opens. A young woman with flaming red hair rides a bicycle down an almost aggressively sun-dappled road in Cagnes-sur-Mer. It is an idyllic scene, full of rich, earthy tans and warm light.
The woman is 15-year-old Andrée Madeleine Heuschling (a hypnotic Christa Theret), and she will soon change the lives of two of the greatest French artists of the past 150 years: legendary Impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir (Michel Bouquet) and his son Jean (Vincent Rottiers), who will one day become one of the defining filmmakers of his generation.
Heuschling, who really just wants to model as a job more than anything else, finds herself in the middle of a household whose rules she neither understands nor cares about.
It is the twilight of the elder Renoir’s life: He is confined to a wheelchair and recently widowed, but remains surrounded by women, all sorts of servants and cooks, many of whom are former models. Renoir needs his brush tied to his hand, but his mind and his eye are still one of a kind.
His youngest son, Claude, misses his mother, refers to his father as “the Old Man” and resents the new interloper. The Old Man loves her: “Her skin soaks up light,” he says (and we do see virtually all of her skin).
“Renoir” livens up when Jean returns from the Great War. Far from the portly, confident filmmaker cineastes know and worship, Jean is young, all of 21 years old, wounded in battle and unsure of his place in the world (Dad refers to him as a “dabbler,” and not unkindly). Jean considers himself a soldier and longs to go back to the front but knows his injury means his war is finished.
“Renoir” sports a rock-solid cast but not much drama to let them explore. Veteran French actor Bouquet plays Renoir with a quiet power, while Theret plays Heuschling with a sharp, coltish panache and a whole lot of nudity (posing for “the Boss,” mostly).
Far from the manic, pixie dreamgirl a lesser (or American) filmmaker could have made her, Heuschling is pretty obnoxious when she wants to be. She has a frosty relationship with the household staff but finds herself drawn to Jean, whom we know she will marry, eventually taking the name Catherine Hessling and starring in some of his early movies. She breaks plates when she is cranky but hey, she soaks up the light, so she can do what she wants.
The images and allegories tend to be a bit on-the-nose. At one point, the wounded Jean is helped across the stream by the servants. “How is it being carried by women?” one asks. This is, of course, how the Old Man’s house runs — women are cook, maid, model and muse. Women carry all of these guys all the time.
And kudos to Taiwanese cinematographer Mark Lee Ping Bin, best known for his work with Hou Hsiao-Hsien and lensing Wong Kar-wai’s “In the Mood for Love.” “Renoir” really does have the lush glory of a Renoir, and that isn’t easy to sustain. Any given freeze frame in this thing is lovely to behold. See “Renoir” for the glorious light and Theret’s strong performance, but don’t expect a whole lot of conflict. In French with English subtitles.