RENOIR. Starring Michel Bouquet, Christa Theret, Vincent Rottiers. Directed by Gilles Bourdos.111 minutes. Rated M (Nudity and infrequent coarse language).
Renoir is a celebrated name in French history, especially of the arts. For those who appreciate the paintings of the older Renoir as well as the films of the younger Renoir, this partial biography will be of interest and aspects of it, fascinating.
This is a leisurely film, capturing the mood of rural France in 1915. There are references to the war and the realisation that it is being waged not far away. In fact, two of the painter’s sons, including the later director, Jean, have served on the front line. But, for the film and its plot, we are in a beautiful French village, a lovely French countryside, a world of visual beauty.
Beauty is an important theme for the film. The artist is surrounded by nature, but is drawn more to portraying the human form, of painting women, and, as he says, his appreciation of flesh. By 1915 Renoir had painted a great number of pictures, and some of them are seen hanging on his wall. There is also the reminder that he painted scenes of ‘lunch on the grass’, with a sequence in the film where the family are at the river, he is painting, and gusts of wind come up tossing cloths and other aspects of the picnic into the water. We also see the artist painting in his studio, especially with his models.
The models have always been important. Renoir has memories of Gabrielle who chose to leave him - but does reappear and joins the family at the end. Renoir has also many memories and paintings of his late wife, the mother of his children, the model to whom he was most devoted.
As the film opens, we see a young girl, Andree cycling towards the Renoir villa. The artist’s wife had recommended her to apply for modelling. She does. She is accepted. Renoir delights in painting her. It is a happy existence except that the rather snobbish staff have a contempt for her.
And then Jean, wounded in the leg, comes back from the war. He is played by the young and versatile actor, Vincent Rottiers years. A patriot, he wants to go back to the front when his wound begins to heal. His father certainly does not want this. Dede (Andree) has fallen in love with him, and he with her, which complicates his emotional life, and the discovery of the possibilities in a relationship with a woman. This leads to some difficulties in the household, the father wanting Dede to return after she has left the house. Jean goes to find her.
This means that for the audience it is principally a portrait of father and son. But it is also a cinema essay in exploration of French art, impressionism, the artist driven to paint.
The family watches cinema, especially Intolerance, released in 1915. The audience is caught up with the magic of cinema and we are given glimpses of the response of Jean who does finally make up his mind that he wants to work in film.
The performances are very strong. 86 year-old Michel Bouquet certainly conveys the character, the genius, aspects of the tortured life of an artist. Vincent Rottiers portrays Jean before he discovers his vocation in life.
There are notes at the end of the film indicating that within four years the older Renoir had died. Jean worked with Dede in film until they parted in 1931. But from the 1930s, with such films as mark La Marseilles, The Rules of the Game, the great war, and into the forties when he went to Hollywood and made a number of specialised features, then into the fifties when he returned to France and continued to make masterpieces including his Lola Montez, The Golden Coach and The River. He was to die, celebrated as one of the 20th century’s great directors, in 1979.
Fr Peter Malone MSC is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Out October 17 2013.