I sense a trend. Film factories are greenlighting fact-based stories pivoting on the intersection of two historically significant lives and then placing the focus on the less compelling personality. A prime example of an American production that made this error is the baseball bio 42. Proving Europeans have not developed immunity is Gilles (Afterwards) Bourdos’ improbably pointless Renoir.
Oddly, films about artists who achieve immense success almost always fail. Whether the subject is a painter, a musician or a writer, the movie never seems to capture the qualities that made the artist worth portraying in the first place, and it rarely offers convincing insight into his or her process. So French writer-director Bourdos’ latest is up against a pair of problematic tendencies — one new, the other as old as the biopic itself. Herculean creative prowess would be required to outswim cultural riptides that overwhelming and, let’s be frank, Bourdos is lucky to be out of the kiddie pool. He hasn’t nearly got what it takes to play in the deep end. The result? A picture that succumbs to both pitfalls.
The two historically significant characters in this case share a last name. The film takes place in 1915 and is set on the French Riviera, where 74-year-old impressionist master Pierre-Auguste Renoir (Michel Bouquet) is living out his final years. Recently widowed, he’s inspired to pick up his palette again by the arrival of a 15-year-old model referred by Matisse. Christa Theret plays Andrée Heuschling, a young woman whose beauty masks a host of psychological red flags. It’s evident she has vague notions of using her brush with celebrity to finagle some sort of personal fame. But, until the painter’s son returns from the war, it’s unclear to her how lying around naked all day will help achieve her career goal.
Enter Jean Renoir (Vincent Rottiers), the great man’s 21-year-old middle son. You can practically hear the gears whirling in Heuschling’s head the moment they lock eyes. Here’s a handsome hero who stands to inherit a fortune and hasn’t yet figured out what he wants to do with his life. She sees him as ripe for molding and begins by offering motivational bon mots such as “You have to seize everything life has to offer.”
So here’s your problem: Bourdos’ rendering of the elder Renoir is boilerplate almost to the point of parody. The movie’s a compilation of lifeless sequences in which the painter dashes off masterpieces amid picture-perfect surroundings. We learn nothing about his life or oeuvre, and anyone seeking psychological insight must make do with fromage such as “You can’t explain a painting — you have to feel it.” The filmmaker offers a portrait of the artist as an old fart because he’s chosen to portray him during the least dynamic phase of his life.
Bourdos would have done better to have given us a glimpse of the man revolutionizing the art form in his prime — or, better yet, to have trained his lens on the son instead. Once Jean Renoir decided what he wanted to do, he did it, and in a big way. He chose the camera over the brush and became one of the most accomplished directors in history. Orson Welles considered him the greatest of all time. Entertainment Weekly voted him the most important French director ever. And who starred in his first films? Yup, the young lady with all that naked ambition. Now that would’ve made a ripping yarn.
Here’s one thing Bourdos did get right: He hired famed forger Guy Ribes, filmed closeups of his hands painting in Renoir’s style and intercut them with scenes depicting the master at work. A smart touch. The movie could have used a great many more.