Renoir (directed by Gilles Bourdos) was released at Cannes in 2012 but is only now getting a UK release. I didn’t have too-high expectations of the film, not only because of the fairly negative reviews (Peter Bradshaw in the Guardian, for example, called it a “cloying movie” covered by “a syrupy drizzle of tasteful prettiness”) but because it is a biopic, a genre I’m not usually very fond of, especially those of famous artists. Moreover, films about art raise the problem of how the practice of the art is represented and often find it difficult to get it right. But I was intrigued to see whether it offered any insights into the connection between one of the greatest painters of his era, Pierre-Auguste Renoir (Michel Bouquet) and his son, Jean, (Vincent Rottiers) one of the greatest exponents of the art of cinema, then still in its infancy. In the end I’m glad I saw it. It’s not a great film but I found it neither “cloying” nor “tastefully pretty” and I enjoyed it a lot despite weaknesses in plot and dramatic tension. The film, a meditation on art, love, war, life and death, is adapted from Le tableau amoureux, a biography of his great-grandfather by Jacques Renoir, grandson of Renoir’s oldest son, the actor Pierre. It takes place on Renoir’s farm near Cagnes-sur-Mer on the Cote d’Azur in 1915, four years before he died. The First World War is in its second year and although the front line is hundreds of miles away, Renoir’s two older sons, Pierre and Jean, have both been seriously wounded.

Here’s the UK trailer.

Spoilers – but it’s not really the kind of film which is spoiled by knowing the plot. 

The film opens with a young woman riding a bike into Renoir’s farm. She is greeted by a sullen urchin who we later discover is Claude (Coco), Renoir’s youngest son (played by Thomas Doret, the kid in the Dardennes Brothers’ Le gamin au vélo (Kid on a Bike) (2011)). She is 16-year-old actress and model Andrée Heuschling (though played by 22-year-old Christa Théret) who has been recommended to Renoir by his friend, the painter Matisse. Andrée (nicknamed Dédé) enters Renoir’s employment as a replacement for Renoir’s lead model, Gabrielle, whom Aline, Renoir’s wife, who has recently passed away, had got rid of, fearing Renoir was becoming “too fond” of her. Andrée, a voluptuous red-haired beauty, soon reinvigorates his painting, leading to a late resurgence of creativity in a series of nudes and landscapes. When Renoir’s son Jean returns from the war to recuperate from his leg wound, he too finds inspiration through Andrée. They become lovers and talk about their dreams for the future. She wants to be a film actress and wants him to direct her. However, Jean feels a sense of duty to the comrades he left behind and re-enlists, this time as a reconnaissance pilot, and returns to the front. The end-captions tell us that Renoir-père dies in 1919, having completed his great work, “Les Baigneuses” (Women Bathing). Jean survives the war and he and Andrée marry. He starts on a film career and she becomes his leading actress (under the name of Catherine Hessling) until they separate in 1931. They die in the same year, 1979, he a celebrated filmmaker, she all but forgotten.

The heart of this gentle film is a very convincing and detailed portrait of the artist as an old man, of a decrepit painter’s passion for the naked body of a beautiful woman. There is much nudity as Andrée poses for several canvases from Renoir’s “Bagneuses” series but they never feel exploitative. I don’t think Laura Mulvey’s theory of the “male gaze” comes into play here (ie the conventional device which presents the exposed female body as titillation to the male audience through which the female audience is also positioned to adopt the this gaze). Here we see the woman not as objectified in bits and pieces (as Godard does with Bardot’ body in the opening scene in Le Mépris (Contempt) (1963)  either an exemplification of the practice or a satire on it, I’m never quite sure) but as a glorification of beauty which the aging artist uses to combat the forces of mortality. I think that when we see so much of her naked we begin to see her as pure form, reflecting the soft light of the Mediterranean sky. (Interestingly, for a French film, in the love scenes Andrée is fully clothed or else the action takes place off-screen). Christa Théret, whose father is a painter and her mother a model, has interesting things to say about painting, nudity, eroticism and sex in an interview here, where she also tells us she had to put on weight for the part, suggesting a shift in body-shape norms since Renoir’s time:

If you are looking for sexual politics, it might be more fruitful to look at the role of the female staff of his household, mostly maids who become models and then maids once again. There are five or six of them who tend to his needs, cooking for him, nursing him, bathing him, putting him to bed, carrying him in his wheelchair up to his studio on the farm and outings down to the river. They refer to him as “patron” (boss). It is a demanding patriarchal order but a benevolent one: they seem to regard their work as a vocation, playing a part, however humble, in a successful artistic career.

The strongest feature of the film is not character but beauty – of the model, of the painting, of the cinematography (shot by the Taiwanese cinematographer Mark Ping Bing Lee who also worked on Wong Kar Wei’s In the Mood for Love) and mise en scène (not to forget the sound and the music), with several instances of stunning circular tracking shots and pans. Bourdos alternates scenes of Renoir painting joyously in luxuriant nature under the Mediterranean sun and with dark interiors where we see him struggling with his infirmities, especially his dreadfully deformed hands, forcing him to cry out in pain at night and have his helpers, including Andrée, bathe his inflamed joints.

(This clip doesn’t have subtitles. Andrée asks if it would bother him if she moved. He replies that if it bothered him he would paint apples. He goes on: “What interests me is skin – the velvety texture of a young girl’s skin.”

The look and feel of the film made me almost – but not quite – ignore the weaknesses in the narrative, its lack of dramatic tension, the pace that is just a little too languorous. There’s not much real conflict, even when Jean returns from the war on crutches and falls under Andrée’s spell. Renoir does ask him if he is “behaving like a gentleman” with her and if there is just a tinge of jealousy, it is as much a general awareness of youth and age than the tortures of individual possessiveness. And despite potentially Oedipal elements, it is clear that Jean loves and admires his father.

What there is of conflict in the film (apart from the 14-year old Claude’s resentment at his father who he feels only speaks to him to reprimand him) comes from Andrée’s self-assertiveness. She may be a muse (to son as well as father) but she is not a passive one. After her first session posing for Renoir, he tells one of his assistants to pay her 5 francs but she tells him her fee is 10 francs. When he remarks that for an actor she is rather “pudique” (modest), she retorts that actresses aren’t whores. She is outspoken, a feminist without necessarily being conscious of the concept, who knows what she wants – and it it’s not to remain an artist’s model, much less a kitchen maid. She resents being treated as such (by the other maids) and in a temper smashes a number of plates. Not any old plates but hand-painted by Renoir and no doubt worth a fortune. (A bit of a cliché, I suppose, using the smashing plate routine as an index of female stroppiness. It goes with the red hair.).

The film is helped by a strong cast. Renoir is played 87-year-old Michel Bouquet, mainly a theatre actor. Apart from a couple of Chabrols a few decades ago, the only film I remember Bouquet being in is Robert Guédiguian’s Le Promeneur des Champs de Mars (The Last Mitterand) where he was a completely convincing President Mitterand. His performance as Renoir is excellent, gruff and terse one moment (not when he’s painting, he tells Andrée), genial and tender the next. He manages to resemble the older Renoir, as shown in Sasha Guitry’s film which can be seen here:  (The actual footage of Renoir begins two minutes into the clip):

I thought Christa Théret’s performance was pretty good on the whole, especially given that her role was limiting from a dramatic point of view. (A sequence near the end where she escapes both Renoirs to spend time in a strange brothel-come-Weimar avant-garde theatre club is the least convincing in the film). Vincent Rottiers plays Jean as passive and lacking in focus. When he tells Andrée that he has neither dreams nor ambitions, she tells him not to say that to the woman he loves or she’ll have contempt for him. His passivity perhaps reflects the state of mind of much of the youth of Europe at that time, coming of age in the slaughterhouse of the First World War.

Renoir belongs to a substantial sub-genre of the biopic dealing with the life of painters and sculptors. Creative genius of any kind is difficult to capture on film but I thought the film did a pretty good job on the representation of the act of painting. It made quite a contrast with another French film dealing with the relationship between painter and model, Jacques Rivette’s La belle noiseuse (1991), which made the whole act of creation seem incredibly violent and painful, for the painter (Michel Picolli) and , especially, for the model (Emmanuelle Béart) as the demonic artist twists and stretches her limbs as he hacks away at his painting. By contrast, Renoir presents the process as almost serene. When Andrée asks Renoir if he minded if she moved a bit, he tells her of course not, otherwise he would just paint apples. Bourdos recreates the act of painting very effectively with the aid of Guy Ribe, a master forger who had just completed a three-year stretch in prison for selling works ‘by’ Picasso, Chagal and Renoir. Ribe (whose own story would make a great screenplay) didn’t copy known works but created work that simulated the style of paintings that might have been done by these artists, paintings that had languished (he would tell naïve collectors) in private collections for years. There is an interesting piece in the New York Times on Ribe which can be accessed at . In the film Michel Bouquet is shown outdoors, a brush in Renoir’s bandaged, arthritic hands dabbing paint onto the canvas and when the camera cuts to the painting, it is Guy Ribes’s hand applying the paint. Dozens of false Renoirs appear in the film which I assume was cleared with the Renoir estate. Here are a couple of clips of this process.

As for the film prefiguring Jean Renoir’s career as a filmmaker, it does show him focused on repairing a film projector which looked to me like an early cinématographe, which functioned both as projector and camera though we don’t see him filming. And, the film implies, it takes Andrée to galvanise him in that direction. He buys a one-reel film from a traveling peddler and shows it to friends and members of the household, including his father whose only comments on this new form – which he would never have called an ‘art’ – were disparaging. And there is a nice piece of dramatic irony from the his brother, Jacques, who tells Jean that the cinema is for the ignorant mob and the French will never be good at filmmaking – it’s an American skill. We see a clip from the film they are watching – it’s DW Grifiths’ Intolerance (1916) projected onto a large Renoir painting covered by a sheet but I resisted the urge to read anything into this. The audience seems totally absorbed by the huge close-ups. This clip begins just after Jean has calmed Andrée down from the plate-throwing incident. He tells he arranged the film show for her, for which she thanks him at the end. It’s what unites them and will unite them further in the future. Here’s the clip.

And so this is a film which is weak in narrative and a little nebulous in character development which (almost) succeeds because of its aesthetic and performative qualities.