An arthritis-plagued father and his war-wounded son are both beguiled by beauty in “Renoir.” This lushly shot stroll through the twilight days of the impressionist painter Auguste and the early formative years of his filmmaking offspring, Jean, reps the strongest and most conventional feature to date from Gallic helmer Gilles Bourdos (“Afterwards”). Again teaming up with ace Taiwanese lenser Mark Lee Ping-bing and composer Alexandre Desplat, Bourdos should see his atmospheric, well-acted period piece appeal to older, art-savvy moviegoers everywhere. Samuel Goldwyn Films picked up U.S. rights in Cannes.
“A Sight for Sore Eyes,” Bourdos’ helming debut, was a French take on a Ruth Rendell mystery, while his sophomore effort, the English-language thriller “Afterwards,” was based on a French novel. Despite the stories’ literary origins, however, Bourdos’ freewheeling adaptations flirted with narrative illogic and featured standoffish protags that left more traditionally minded auds cold. All the more surprising then, that “Renoir,” again based on a literary work, is a traditional, old-fashioned, picture with a gentle, observational quality unlike anything Bourdos has attempted.
This change can be at least partly attributed to co-screenwriter Jerome Tonnerre, who helped pen mainstream hits such as “The Women on the 6th Floor” and “My Best Friend,” and who’s credited here alongside Bourdos and his regular scribe, Michel Spinosa. Their elegant script is drawn from a novelized biography by photog and d.p. Jacques Renoir, the great-grandson of Pierre-Auguste and the grandson of Jean’s actor brother, Pierre.
Pic is set on the French Riviera in 1915, where the verdant and paradisiacal Renoir estate offers shelter from the horrors of WWI. Auguste (Michel Bouquet, “The Last Mitterand”), already in his 70s, has just become a widower and is worried sick about his two sons at the front. Despite the deformation of his hands by rheumatoid arthritis, he still paints daily and looks after his youngest son, the mischievous Coco (Thomas Doret, “The Kid With a Bike”), though he’s aided by a large female staff at home.
Catalyst of the story is the arrival of Andree (Crista Theret), a sprightly girl with flaming red hair and porcelain skin who becomes Renoir’s new muse and who also catches the eye of Auguste’s second son, Jean (Vincent Rottiers), who has been sent home to convalesce after a serious injury. It is Andree who stimulates Jean’s interest in cinema (she would later marry him and star in his first silents as Catherine Hessling).
Seemingly without any narrative agenda aside from simply observing the characters, the film meanders through the daily lives of the reunited father and son and the stunning female newcomer who personifies their deep familial bonds and shared appreciation of beauty.
There is no major drama here save the encroaching end of one great artist and the birth of another, but Bourdos and his fellow screenwriters have translated something so monumental into a succession of such small domestic tableaux in which the Renoirs are seen as people first and artists second. Though the apparently calculating Andree remains something of an outline, this seems appropriate given that both Renoirs objectify her more than they actually engage with her. And Theret’s luminous perf, opposite those of vet Bouquet and the equally strong Rottiers, makes clear why the men take an immediate shine to her.
Technically, this is Bourdos’ most ambitious film yet. Regular d.p. Lee, shooting mostly outdoors, works with shifting flecks of sunlight and color, achieving the live-action equivalent of one of Renoir’s impressionist canvases while keeping things grounded in a believable reality. Alexandre Desplat’s string-driven score adds a dash of energy that keeps the occasionally lingering images from becoming too pastoral or the pacing too languid. Production and costume designs are also top-drawer.