To get a lot out of the film “Renoir,” it helps to know a little bit of film history. It helps to know that Jean Renoir, the son of famous impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir, became one of France’s most renowned directors, responsible for “Boudu Saved from Drowning,” “Rules of the Game” and “Grand Illusion,” classics among 1930s films. It also helps to know that Catherine “Andree” Hessling, his first wife and star of his first films, was one of his father’s models.
Otherwise, “Renoir,” directed by Gilles Bourdos and written by Mr. Bourdos with Jerome Tonnerre, may feel like an artist biopic in which the character disappears for much of its running time. The year is 1915 in France, and the first World War rages on, but far enough away from the picturesque Cote d’Azur seaside to not really affect the Renoir household. The painter, ailing from crippling arthritis and wheelchair-bound, is in his last years. To his still-bustling estate comes Andree (Christa Theret), who lies her way into being the latest of Renoir’s models. (She says Mrs. Renoir told her about the job; Mrs. Renoir has passed away) It’s never too clear what she really wants out of the deal, or how far she’s come to get this job, but soon she’s doffing togs and posing. And Renoir, he likes it.
Soon, Jean Renoir returns from the front. He’s lucky – at 21 he has escaped the trenches with a leg wound and a limp. He quickly falls in love with Andree, partly because of her fiery attitude, and partly because she’s often lying about naked while his father paints.
As befitting the painter, the film is impressionistic, rather than plot-heavy. The film belongs to all three of the protagonists. It’s about Renoir facing death and his legacy, while still trying break free from artistic conventions. Foreground and background in his paintings get equal weight, just like the film. Jean Renoir finds himself torn between his love and his guilt over leaving his comrades back at the front. Andree tries to figure her social status between an underpaid artist model and possible future wife.
The film suggests that it was Andree who pushed Jean into the film business. She wants to be an actress. Jean sees the film business as popular – not fine – art, and worries he’ll end up painting porcelain like his father did in his early years.
The film is beautiful to look at, shot by Mark Ping Bing Lee, the famed cinematographer of Hou Hsiao Hsien and Wong Kar Wai. There’s a sunset fire to a lot of the scenes, matching Andree’s hair, and a general wonderment to observing natural light. Even when the story seems to vanish, there is plenty to watch on screen. Director Bourdos, who’s previously helmed crime thrillers, favors wide angles and languid takes.
Vincent Rottiers is fine as Jean, looking more like Ed Norton than the real life Jean Renoir, who looked like Wallace Shawn. Mr. Rottiers is all jagged hurt and unease, even when he’s in Andree’s arms. Christa Theret remains an enigma throughout, intentionally. And Michel Bouquet brings frailty and strength to his old Renoir. The father-son scene at the end is surprisingly powerful considering what has come before.
The film is worth its indulgence, full of beauty and portents of the future. The world was about to explode into chaos, and Renoir was painting the dying of the light.
Starring: Michel Bouquet, Vincent Rottiers, Christa Theret
Length: 111 minutes
Rating: R for sequences of art-related nudity and brief language
Playing at: Plaza de Oro