Gilles Bourdos’ 2012 biopic follows an ailing but strong-willed Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s (Michel Bouquet) struggle to bring his artistic visions to life in spite of his deteriorating health. The painter draws inspiration—and much-needed spiritual rejuvenation—from Andrée Heuschling (Christa Théret), his last model. The film, set in 1915, also touches on Renoir’s struggle to make sense of his son Jean Renoir’s (Vincent Rottiers) perilous decision to rejoin the army.
On a broad scale, the film sheds light on universal themes of love, loss, pain in all its physical and emotional permutations, (be)longing, and individuals’ lifelong search for their raison d’être. It also poignantly juxtaposes the frailty of old age against the vitality of youth, world-weary eyes against uncertain ones. ‘Go get yourself pumped full of lead, you imbecile! Or if you prefer, go kill some good German fellow…If you think it’ll change something,’ barked the anguished elder Renoir upon discovering that his son has reenlisted in the Great War in spite of his barely healed battle wound. Raw and honest dialogues between father and son about life and delaying the inevitable gives heartfelt substance to a tale already laden with layers of meaning.
In this way, pain (the loss of his wife; his arthritis and immobility; a son about to risk his life again) is delicately balanced with joy: youth and beauty embodied by the irresistible, nymph-like, flame-haired woodland enchantress of a muse, Andrée, whom Titian would have worshipped; and the tender young love that blossomed between Andrée and Jean, beloved son, determined soldier and, as history tells us, future filmmaker. In other words, apart from being a well-composed, aesthetically charged biopic, Renoir also serves as a nuanced exploration of the human condition.
More specifically, Renoir offers a glimpse into the life of the revered Impressionist in his later years, the most noteworthy aspect being his tireless attempts to capture the beauty he sees in the female body, its soft curves, gentle contours, plump breasts and velvety flesh. For him, this beauty is deathless: ‘[t]he pain passes, but the beauty remains’.
Pierre-Auguste Renoir: You can’t explain a painting, you have to feel it. Go see Titian’s courtesans at the Louvre. If those don’t make you want to caress them, then you’ve understood nothing at all.
Pierre-Auguste Renoir: Where are you going?
Jean Renoir: To the Louvre!
All of this is set against the stunning backdrop of the French Riviera. Lush greenery, flowing streams, leaves trembling in the gentle breeze, and occasional glimpses of the sea from the balcony of Renoir’s abode are filtered through an ever-present afternoon light, the sort coveted by artists and aesthetes alike. It is this marriage of golden lighting and dreamy green fields speckled with shades of vermillion (most prominently Andrée’s sunlit auburn hair and Edwardian garbs, seductively draped over pale legs) that gives Bourdos’ film the quality of an Impressionist painting. Even scenes drenched in pathos, like the close-ups of Renoir’s bony, bandaged, and painfully disfigured hands or long shots of his skeletal frame being carried in a chair by servants, are rendered achingly beautiful.
Renoir may not have garnered favourable reviews from film critics with a predilection for drama—it was deemed insubstantial by The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw, ‘undramatic’ by The Hollywood Reporter’s Todd McCarthy—but it is, for those who appreciate art, a stunning homage to Renoir’s vision and artistic genius, filled with enchanting images of nature, women, and women frolicking in nature. If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, a film’s brilliance is very much in the eye of the viewer. This is not a film for those who seek dramatic tension, suspense, and thrilling action at every turn; rather, it is something to be relished by romantics, dreamers, and poetic souls with a yen for artistic life in the old world.