Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Impressionist painter, was, like many ground-breaking artists of the early-20th century, a controversial genius. Though, that isn’t necessarily the subject of this particular movie by Gilles Bourdos. Rather, we get the final years of Renoir where he is unable to walk and barely able to even paint due to failing eyesight and arthritic hands. Yet, paint he must, because the muse will not leave him alone. And, in this movie, that muse takes the tantalizing form of one of his last nude models, Andrée Heuschling.
The movie is based on a book, ’Le Tableau Amoureux’ by Jacques Renoir, photographer and cinematographer, and also great-grand-son of the painter and grand-son of his oldest son, the actor, Pierre Renoir. The book is a fictionalized biography of the Renoir family.
It is set in 1915, during World War I, with the 70-something Renoir and his household living in Cagnes-sur-Mer, a beautiful Mediterranean coastal town (the area popularly known as the French Riviera). His wife is dead, his two older sons are both struggling with their war wounds (physical and emotional) and the youngest one, a teenager still at home and, for some reason, kept from attending a regular school, skulks around sullenly.
Renoir is looked after by strong-willed and able-bodied women who make up the rest of the household. Some of them are former models / lovers. These women cook, clean, bathe, carry and coddle and anticipate his every wish and need. Renoir continues to paint daily in his studio, particularly, the voluptuous pink nudes that became his signature during that late phase. There are a couple of times in the movie where we get the distinct impression that the fascination is not so much sexual (though, yes, mildly erotic) or even purely artistic, but, increasingly, the yearning for youthful flesh that plagues a man whose own flesh and faculties are failing him.
What Bourdos, as both co-writer and director, dramatizes with the elder Renoir is not just his creative process or his passion for feminine sensuality, but, really, the artist as an old man. When Renoir explains to Jean, his middle son, that he must keep painting, even with arthritic hands bound to hold the paintbrush, because “the pain passes, beauty remains” or when he marvels at how Andrée’s skin takes the light like no one else’s, we understand how, for Renoir, giving up his painting would be like giving up his life. It is what he lives for. Even in that time of war, his pleasure in beauty and rendering it through art is stronger than ever. He tells Jean: “I refuse to paint the world black. A painting should be something pleasant and cheerful. There are enough disagreeable things in life. I don’t need to paint more.”
When 15-year-old Andrée enters this ordered, quiet, sheltered world of Les Collettes, as Renoir’s home is named, to offer her modeling services to the old painter, there are subtle conflicts as she interacts with each person who lives there – the men are enthralled by her beauty and the women are repelled by her arrogance. The original story is that Henri Matisse, who she had sat for, sent her to Renoir because he thought she was more suited to Renoir’s style. Although, in the movie, it is indicated that Renoir’s dead wife appeared to the girl and sent her to Renoir. “A girl out of nowhere sent by a dead woman” Renoir says.
Unlike previous models and the household women, she’s not quite the silent, adoring type. She has a mind, a will and a willfulness of her own. And, of course, hungry ambitions. The painter and his muse do not become lovers, though. He admires her spirit and her Titian-like beauty but says, at one point, “Too early, too late.”, meaning that their respective ages at their time of meeting make an intimate involvement impossible.
When the 21-year-old Jean, one of the weary warrior sons, returns to convalesce from a near-fatal leg wound, there is the inevitable friction with the father and the sexual attraction with the muse, who he often comes upon in her nude poses. But, all of this is shown through small undercurrents rippling ominously just below the surface rather than grand melodrama. Eventually, father and son come to a sort of compromise by agreeing on a philosophy of not letting oneself be carried through life like a cork in water. And, through Andrée’s drive and passion for life, Jean finds his own. They discover a shared interest for movies, though of different kinds. She scolds him for saying that he had no dreams or ambitions and urges him to seize everything that life offers. She is even so bold as to critique the great painter before the son and, then, coolly, while in bed, advising him to make movies with her by selling his father’s priceless works. They do fall in love, though the movie ends with Jean leaving a furious Andrée to return to war. Not shown in the movie is how they eventually marry and Jean Renoir goes on to become one of the greatest directors of cinema, making at least 15 silent films with her as the star (under the screen name of Catherine Hessling). Their life stories take separate paths, though, because they divorce and, while he gains world fame, she retires into obscurity and near-poverty.
All three characters get near-equal screen time and show enough depth and complexity that it would be fair to say that this story is not just about the artist. It is about the artist, his son and their muse. Yet, the story isn’t so much a drama or even a narrative. Rather, it is a collection of small, but momentous, incidents in the lives of these three people who survive in the eye of the raging storm that is World War I. The only overt violence we witness is when Andrée smashes some of Renoir’s painted plates. Everything else is controlled, much like the painter himself says to Jean, once, of his art: “What must control the structure is not the line. It’s the color.” And, it’s as if the story is controlled not so much by plot lines but by focusing on the intricate, meaningful details – giving us a beautiful contrast between creation, through the act of painting, and destruction, through the ongoing war.
The elder Renoir, played by the amazing 87-year-old Michel Bouquet (who looks a lot like the old painter) is un-cliched despite the many epigrammatic lines he delivers. He is called “Boss” by the entire household, and his patriarchal authority is taken for granted by all, including, and mostly, himself. There is a well-ingrained self-centeredness: here is a man in his final years and there’s a World War going on, yet, his perfectly-constructed galaxy of caretakers doesn’t stop revolving around him. He doesn’t seem to have much to give back to them other than his art, which he is hanging onto as if it were life itself. Bouquet succeeds in conveying all this with such humanity, though, that we are left in awe of the painter and his dedication to his art.
Andrée, for all her youthful impetuosity, eager grasping at life and that seething spirit that seems to light her from within, captivating both father and son, possesses a calculating mind well beyond her years. Christa Théret plays her skillfully by balancing the coarse with the ethereal – such that we find, in ourselves, both love and hate, fascination and repulsion, for this woman who, so completely, held these two men hostage. That her life then ended so sadly is intriguing indeed – perhaps there ought to be a movie on her final years. Where did all that fire and light go?
Actor, Vincent Rottiers, as Jean Renoir, captures various nuances of the future director: a 21-year-old’s barely-lidded frustration with an incomprehensible war, the blind need to find his place in a world that would rather have his generation shot dead and the newly-awakened sensitivity for something larger than himself. Added to those inner conflicts is the outer complexity of trying to, hesitantly, hold his own against the two overpowering personalities in his life at that time – the father and the lover.
If there must be a single star in this movie, then it is, unquestionably, the cinematography. Bourdos worked with Taiwanese cinematographer, Mark Lee Ping-bing, here. There are various tableau scenes that look like Renoir paintings themselves, with tonal, translucent interplays of light and color. There are even a couple of nods to scenes from Jean Renoir’s future movies. Many of the canvases on the walls of Renoir’s house are excellent copies of the originals (done by a former art forger and convict, Guy Ribes, whose hands are also shown in the painting shots). We see the fiery-headed Andrée in radiant, orange clothes cycling through the bucolic French countryside past women in somber black (mourning for their men lost at war) and violently-disfigured and silently-staring men waiting endlessly. This contrasts with her walking languidly, skin luminous, through the otherworldly lush and sunshine-filled landscapes around Renoir’s home. With every such frame, we see how her flushed, resonant beauty beguiled both father and son. There are also a few striking images with water, simple and stunning in how they capture light: a paint-brush slowly shedding whorls of rich color in a tumbler, water gushing from a garden hose like a meteoric shower of white light, a flowing stream where the clear water just dances like a joyous fairy creature, the shimmering, translucent blues and violets of the Mediterranean. All these scenes have been composed with such care and beauty and communicate so much without words that there is little need for dialogue at times. Even the music by the sublime Alexander Desplat is understated and seamlessly blended – you almost forget it’s there unless you listen for it.
This is a movie you will love if you’re a fan of classic French movies in general. It is the kind of intelligent, exquisite film-making that happens, maybe, once a year in Hollywood – if that.
And, if you’re interested in more background, in addition to the above-mentioned book by Jacques Renoir (which I could not find in English translation), you might try Jean Renoir’s biography, ‘Renoir, My Father’.