San Francisco Chronicle
POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, May 10, 2013
Handsomely mounted but dramatically anemic, Gilles Bourdos' "Renoir" offers some modest rewards, though its treatment of artistic endeavor, the lure of the flesh and generational issues finally feels lightweight.
The story takes place toward the end of Pierre-Auguste Renoir's life, when the great painter was confined to a wheelchair and his household helpers — seen here as a lively group of affectionate women — were required to tie his brush to his arthritic hand. (The film was shot at the real-life Renoir estate at Cagnes-sur-Mer.)
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It's the summer of 1915, and Renoir (Michel Bouquet), 74, continues to paint as he copes with the ravages of age. Two arrivals will shake up the household. The first is a beautiful young woman, Andrie (Christa Theret), a rebellious soul seeking work as a model. She poses for the old man, often nude, and he grows to like her. Then, Renoir's son Jean (Vincent Rottiers), a cavalry officer, returns home to nurse a leg injured on the battlefield. Jean, something of a stiff, begins to fall for Andrie, who has a bit of a conniving streak, and they begin a romance.
Eventually, we'll see Andrie awaken Jean's interest in film — yes, this is the same Jean Renoir who would go on to direct "The Rules of the Game" and other masterworks. (In fact, the real Andrie married Jean and, under the name Catherine Hessling, starred in some of his movies.) Before the affair, there's a mild tug-of-war between father and son for Andrie's attentions, and later an open and heated conflict between the men over Jean's intention to return to the front — incomprehensible to the old man.
The painter delivers pithy comments on art and life ("The flesh is all that matters," he opines, and, "Her skin soaks up light"). We watch him paint and Andrie pose. There are picnics and outdoor trysts, dinner scenes and the like, and lots of that Cote d'Azur glow.
The venerable Bouquet and Theret create some interest in their characters, and the portrayal of the artist's household has touching and amusing moments. But overall the film has a sedating effect. While trying to avoid old-school dramatic fireworks, filmmaker Bourdos errs in the opposite direction. A movie about two supreme artists needs a little more sting.