With a rich colour palette, Gilles Bourdos’ Renoir sees the worlds of both artist and filmmaker come to life at the hands of a dazzling muse.
The Shock Of The New by Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
A striking, flame-haired – hatless! – young woman cycles along a country road in Provence in sunlit summer, passing peasants as she goes. She’s the flirtatious, capricious new artist’s model, Andrée (Christa Theret), arrived out of the blue from who knows where, who will shake up the comfortable, almost timeless routine of the Renoir household. Outside in the real world, World War One is creating a new world order – and, as the film progresses, we see the changes that will come too in the artistic world.
As a slice of life of the great artist over the course of a year or so of his great old age, Renoir, the film, is structured like a series of beautiful, softly lit tableaux of his paintings. Doted on by a flurry of female servants, the old man Pierre-Auguste (veteran Michel Bouquet, star of many a Chabrol film), practically crippled by arthritis, is carried by a procession of them in his bath chair up the hill to the little pavilion where he paints. His soldier son Jean returns home to recuperate from the war on crutches – a paintbrush dipped into water disperses a cloud of red paint. Women preparing meals in the ancient kitchen – as they chop and sing, the camera lingers like a painter’s eye over the still life on the long wooden table, the dead rabbit, the shapes and colours of the vegetables. A picnic on the grass by a stream. Boats on the river at night, lit by flaring torches.
As he paints, Renoir names the colours. Everything is slow, quiet and deliberate. “Today I simplify. Colour creates structure, not line.” Flesh inspires him and Andrée’s skin glows like a Titian. For the old man, there are things he says are not his business to paint, such as war. But the new age is making itself felt. His son Jean (Vincent Rottiers), who is fascinated by the mechanics of film – and who became the great director of Boudu Saved From Drowning and La Bête Humaine – rigs up an impromptu projector contraption and shows film bought from a travelling huckster: their first sight of moving images entrances the assembled household.
Inevitably, Andrée triggers the obsessions of both father and son. Neither can live without her. As her relationship with the father grows closer, he realises it is too late for him and too early for her. When she and the son start an affair, she makes him promise to make movies with her when the war is over. She has become the catalyst from the old order to the new: symbolically, to the horror of Renoir’s devoted women, in a fit of anger, she starts to smash his hand-painted plates that they treasure (he started life as a painter of ceramics). When Andrée runs away, Jean tracks her down and finds her in a grotesquely decadent nightclub – the first time we see modern life outside of the Renoir time capsule. But they return to the country together to a typically French long lunch in the sun for the extended Renoir household. Life has returned to normal, for the rest of Renoir’s lifetime at least.
Gilles Bourdos’ (Inquiétudes, Afterwards) atmospheric film, a real Cannes pleaser, is, in fact, closely based on real life. As the end credits tell us, Jean Renoir really did go on to make films with Andrée. It’s a film of beautiful images. There was no rivalry between father and son. The scenes of Jean acting as his father’s assistant look as they did in life – there’s a snippet of archive footage on YouTube. The film’s treatment of Renoir is reverential, as befits a figure of his stature, and Michel Bouquet embodies him superbly. But the figure of Jean is almost more interesting and yet his character seems underdeveloped. Where did his passion for film come from? And how did his relationship with Andrée develop? This could have made an interesting film in its own right. And as can be seen from the film’s screenplay credits, the Renoir dynasty still manifests itself in the film world.
Renoir is released on 28th June 2013 in the UK