Pierre Auguste Renoir, that painter of young doughy women, now takes his turn as the subject of a French art-house film. The simply-named “Renoir” (2012), directed by Gilles Bourdos, earns a solid B+. There’s enough there to make a good evening out of it. But the film, like the painter, is too twee to be a true ace.
The film opens with a precocious carrot-top walking through a bucolic green glenn. The scenery looks strikingly similar to sylvan works like Renoir’s 1881 “Chestnut Tree Blooming.” We get it. Experience nature like it’s a painting. Subsequent scenes fixate on hunted animals and fruit, like still lives. And then, cut! More verdant foliage (hint: it’s like landscape painting). Although the effect verges on heavy-handed, the cinematography does a good job articulating how taking in a canvas is about marveling at what’s before your eyes.
The sassy redhead, Andrée Heuschling (Christa Théret), looks convincingly ripped out of a Renoir, with her delicate features and curvy body. The film begins with her arrival in the summer of 1915 at the artist’s country estate and studio in the south of France. She’s come to be Renoir’s (Michel Bouquet) new model, on the authority of a letter written by his recently-deceased wife. Not-so-subtle subtext: she’s a replacement.
After a few nude sittings in his studio, the 74-year-old artist realizes she’s his best model in years. Her presence galvanizes the aging genius into a period of prolific output. It’s an astounding creative overdrive for an old man beleaguered by intense pain from arthritis and rheumatism. His deformed and disfigured hands can barely paint.
The big joke in the film is how when the starlet poses for the artist, he never paints her literally. Initially, her ego is injured. Why don’t the works bear any resemblance to her face or pose in the studio? Why bother her with standing around all day in the studio? We’re led to believe that the sight of her skin and youthful beauty rejuvenates, inspires and stimulates Renoir like a muse. As he explains, “Velvety texture of young skin is what interests me.” Either that, or a lecherous old man is sublimating into paint the sexual desire he no longer has the strength to act on.
While the story of an old man re-energized by a ginger muse makes for a great movie, it must be said that Renoir’s late style of the 1910s is not as highly regarded by posterity as his early and high style. His hands frankly could not execute the same virtuosic technique. And his increased interest in female nudes doesn’t appeal to every demographic. The film was kind enough to glaze this over.
With the internet at our fingertips, one can chart how Renoir’s approach to the nude changed. Comparing his early 1870″Lise on the Bank of the Seine,” 1881 “Blonde Bather,” 1892 “Bather seated on a rock,” and 1902 “Reclining Nude (The Baker’s Wife),” to his 1910 “Bather Admiring Herself in Water,” 1914 “Seated Bather,” and 1916 “Bathers,” it’s not hard to see why many critics and scholars regard his later nudes as less successful. Their orange palette looks garish instead of sunny and their curves more walrus than voluptuous.
But 1916’s “Bathers” was still good enough for Albert Coombs Barnes, who went on to purchase it for his collection. Like many men of his time, Barnes wanted a Renoir too. Unlike most, he went on to amass 181 of them. Crude as it may sound, Renoir was in some ways the Jeff Koons of his era. He gave wealthy men the kind of art they craved and they repaid him by making him rich.
This wealth is an undercurrent in the film. A harem of middle-aged women tend to the artist’s failing body. Few painters could afford such a team. There is the predictable tension between these older women and his new young model. In the official intergenerational conflict scene, passive-agressive comments fly and the muse takes her revenge on the crones by shattering plates painted by the artist on the kitchen floor. Shock and awe: the plates are worth more than their weight in gold.
Less than enthralling is the romance that blossoms between the model and Renoir’s son, who is recovering from war injuries. The saccharin scenes are cavity-inducing. Less than intriguing are Renoir’s “let me tell you about art’s meaning” monologues. Showing is better than telling. Less than functional are the bizarrely sweet conversations between Father and Son lusting over the model. Freud is smiling in his grave.
The overarching theme in both the film — and Renoir’s late work and consistent sales — is the power of women to hold men spellbound in desire. Only a French film could give this material its fullest exploration. Only a movie with sickeningly twee moments could do justice to the over-sentimental Renoir. Snark aside, the film is worth seeing precisely because it does such a fine job at mirroring the best and worst of what Renoir offers.
Renoir, directed by Gilles Bourdos, is playing at the Angelika New York (18 West Houston Street, Greenwich Village, Manhattan) through Spring 2013.