Starring: Michel Bouquet, Christa Theret, Vincent Rottiers
Genre: Drama/Romance/Biopic/Smug French vanity project
In the French Riviera in the summer of 1915, Andrée Heuschling (Theret) arrives at the estate of the impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir (Bouquet) to work as a model. Getting the job, she has an effect on the recently widowed and now very elderly painter who finds new inspiration and motivation for his painting. Pierre’s middle son (and future celebrated director), Jean (Rottiers) returns home to convalesce after being wounded while fighting in the war, and there is an immediate spark between himself and Andrée. As all three of them get used to living together they inspire each other to discover lessons in both life and love.
Oh it does all sound very French doesn’t it? Yes it does. This is most definitely a film that is more than happy to take its time, and in fact very little happens. While the rest of France, and indeed a majority of the entire world are at war, Renoir’s French Riviera estate is a scene of peace and tranquillity where life runs at a pace as slow as the narrative of the film. This is a pace that will severely test the patience of many. Though the beautiful shots, scenery and cinematography are as lush and vibrant as a Renoir painting, there is very little substance to the entire 111 minute narrative.
Indeed, all the variables are in place for this to be a solid period piece. There are the lavish production values and some great performances; veteran actor Bouquet has great screen presence as the elderly and philosophical painter, while Theret lights up the screen, as well as often infuriating just as much. These are potentially interesting characters, as the three main characters all have interesting stories to tell, but there is never any great detail given. Likewise Jean Renoir’s two brothers and the women that work in the house are all potentially rich characters, but there is never any great detail given to their conflicts and experiences.
A sense of ambiguity can be good, and it is good when a film lets the audience fill in the gaps and think for themselves, but perhaps Renoir goes a little too far in this sense. Of course you can argue that this is just like the impressionist paintings of Renoir or that life imitates art in that we are always refusing to show what is beneath the surface blah, blah, blah. However, theories and interpretations aside, there is an unavoidable sense of smugness dominating the entire narrative which at times is quite sickening and alienating. This is a shame considering it is partly a story about why a highly regarded director decided to pick up a camera. His reasons for doing it and the conflicts that arise are once again potentially interesting, but there is always a sense of calm when there should be some true tension and soul searching in my view.
There is only a little reward for the viewer’s patience, apart from a scene near the end involving Father and Son, and then the three brothers for the first time which does contain genuine emotion. Overall, the strength of the true story is quite possibly the films saviour, but also a depressing reminder of unfulfilled potential.
Lavish and a little smug, Renoir is a film whose slow and ponderous pace will annoy and alienate many. There is an interesting subject matter and interesting real life characters at its centre, which keep things ticking along well enough, though a little more substance instead of all the style could have certainly realised the potential for a more engaging story.