Last night I saw the French film Renoir, directed by Gilles Bourdos. It was lovely. I felt transported back to the days when I frequented art cinemas in New York City and Washington, D.C. and luxuriated in the dreamy tableaux of the French films of yesteryear. This movie is sweet and satisfying. Every frame is visual perfection. The story is set against a breathtaking backdrop of landscapes on the French Riviera, where Impressionist Pierre-Auguste Renoir (played by Michel Bouquet) is living out his final years. Photographer Mark Ping Bing Lee has painted a masterpiece.
Renoir, age 75, has had a stroke and is suffering from crippling rheumatoid arthritis. He is attended by an entourage of adoring housekeepers and former models who virtually carry him around in his wheelchair. They soak his hands, wrap them in bandages to ease his pain, place the brush in his hand, and squeeze colors onto his easel. He sleeps under a wicker frame so that the sheets won’t hurt when they touch his body. Yet he continues to paint with the desperation of a genius who knows that his time is running out.
The events take place in 1915, with war going on in the background, though we never actually see it. Focus shifts between the painter himself; the household, including 14-year-old son Claude, or “Coco” (Thomas Doret); son Jean, a cavalryman in the French army (Vincent Rottiers); and a new young model of Titian beauty, Andrée Heuschling (Christa Theret). Intrigue and the smoke of battle swirl around the old man, who yearns for nothing but beauty and simplicity. Andrée’s sensuous curves inspire the artist with a renewed sense of purpose. She is his latest and final muse.
We piece together the family history as the story unfolds. When it opens, we learn that Renior’s wife Aline has just died, leaving their sullen teenage son still at home. People whisper about Aline, their eldest son Pierre (who has become an actor), and the mysterious Gabrielle, who was banished from the household for unspoken reasons. We are led to assume that the painter has had many affairs and that Aline had tolerated them, but only up to a point.
The middle son, Jean, soon arrives from the battlefront on crutches. He is recovering from a shrapnel wound in his leg and is forced to stay around the house with little to do. Like his father, he is smitten by the young Andrée, who is headstrong and complicated. They are both fascinated by the cinema and feel that they share a bond. Romance ensues.
Bouquet does an uncanny portrayal of the elderly Renoir, alternately tender and curmudgeonly impatient. As Jean, Rottiers captures the mix of love and frustration that the son feels in his relationship with his father. Theret’s interpretation of Andrée is complex, aptly reflecting the tempestuousness and unpredictability of the immature young model.
I was confused at first that a man so elderly and infirm could have children so young. However, at the end Renoir mentions that he married late and was considerably older than his wife. My research revealed that he was 60 years old when Coco was born. Had I known that from the beginning, I would have watched the film without the nagging sense that the facts didn’t add up.
As the story closes, Jean’s wound has healed and he is returning to the front. We are left with the feeling that Renoir senior will not be painting much longer and that Jean and Andrée will meet again. And indeed, the epilogue informs us that the couple married five years later and became involved in making movies. She took the stage name Catherine Hessling and acted in many of his early pictures. Jean Renoir, of course, is the well-known director, screenwriter, actor, producer, and author, who ended up making more than forty films.