‘Renoir” doesn’t get much beneath the surface. But, good God, what a surface.
A leisurely paced Great Artist drama about the last years of an Impressionist giant, this French import is set on the Cote D’Azur in the summer of 1915, when the palette of nature has run riot. The shots bloom with ochers and vermilions and siennas and ceruleans, brushed onto the screen by master cinematographer Mark Ping Bing Lee (“In the Mood for Love”). There are camera pans across a row of freshly caught fish and gleaming ripe peppers, the latter chopped up by women singing ancient peasant songs. Sensuousness is the film’s theory and practice, its subject and objective, and the results come awfully close to synesthesia. This is a movie bent on capturing the sound of the sunlight and the tints of the breeze.
It almost doesn’t matter what the humans are doing in this garden of painterly delights, so close to the killing fields of the Great War yet so far in tone. Scripted by director Gilles Bourdos with Jérôme Tonnerre and Michel Spinosa from a “fictional memoir” by the painter’s grandson Jacques Renoir, “Renoir” has fairly trite things to say about the selfishness of artists and the relationship between the creative act and the lived life. It’s the sort of movie where characters speak in well-shaped homilies — “The pain passes, Jean, but beauty remains,” or “Go with the flow, like a cork in a river” — rather than honest dialogue (though there’s some of that, too).
But we respond to biopics because they bring famous dead people back to life and allow us to imagine being in the same room with them. And “Renoir” offers better-than-average value, since you get two Renoirs for the price of one. Pierre-Auguste (Michel Bouquet) is the frail, failing painter, his hands arthritic knots that still, somehow, create canvases of breathtaking colors. His son, the above-mentioned Jean (Vincent Rottiers), arrives wounded from the front lines, still young, still a decade from embarking on a film career that will see him direct great works of humanism like “Grand Illusion,” “The Rules of the Game,” and “The River.”
Since they’re French, a woman separates them. Andrée (Christa Theret) is a young model who turns up at the aging painter’s country retreat on the advice of his late wife — “a girl from out of nowhere, sent by a dead woman.” She poses nude for him with an imperiousness reminiscent of Kate Winslet in one of her wanton moods, and when the son arrives from the war, she falls into a wary relationship with him as well. (In fact, she’ll become Catherine Hessling, Jean Renoir’s first wife, leading lady, and muse.)
The emotional tug-of-war is supposed to be the central fact of “Renoir,” with Pierre-Auguste and Jean each laying claim to Andrée even as she struggles to carve out autonomy for herself in a small, hermetic world of women — cooks and caretakers, maids who become models and vice versa. Pierre-Auguste is well past the fooling-around stage — although there are plenty of bitter remarks about the days when he wasn’t — but he’s clearly the “boss” of a curiously pliant henhouse. A surpassingly lovely image of the wheelchair-bound painter carried through a field to his studio by his domestic harem says many things about what great artists deserve and what they think they deserve.
But the melodrama in “Renoir” keeps drifting away, seduced by a cinematic impressionism of color and sound. The film gets becalmed, and when a spasm of plot erupts in the final half-hour, it feels as forced as a Jazz Age Charleston in a 1915 bordello. Besides the cinematography, Bouquet is the best thing here, seething with the frustration of a naturally sensual man (“What interests me is skin,” he barks at one point) trapped in a calcified prison. Everyone else in the movie hangs on what he sees, on how he sees. “He always makes me look too fat,” grouses Andrée. “He always makes me look like a girl,” commiserates Jean.
“Renoir” may be too decorous, but it’s about decoration — the intense beauty of surfaces. It’s about men watching women and women trusting them to watch, knowing transformation may happen. The filmmakers brush up against notions of artistic exploitation and great selfishness, but they continually back away from dark into the sunlight. “The Renoirs refuse to paint the world black,” says Pierre-Auguste, and “Renoir” takes him at his word.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.