If classical visual beauty alone defined what makes a movie great, “Renoir” might be, well, a masterpiece. But so many other elements need to harmonize to create a timeless film: the script, the acting, the direction. In those areas, this lovely but dramatically underpowered work from Gilles Bourdos comes up a few brushstrokes short. But wow, what a looker.
We begin following a young woman as she bicycles down a country road. The long orange dress she wears looks almost drab compared with the rich red luster of her hair. This is Andrée, aka Dédé (Christa Theret), a would-be dancer-actress looking for work in the French Riviera compound of famed but decrepit painter Pierre-August Renoir (Michel Bouquet).
He lives as king bee in a hive of women who tend to his every need — cooking his meals, carrying him up windswept hills in his wheelchair, or doffing their clothes to pose for him. His two adult sons are off at war. It’s 1915. The only other male around is his youngest, Claude (Thomas Doret, the kid of “The Kid With a Bike”). Known as Coco, he skulks around this seaside paradise with a scowl that speaks to a whole life of being overlooked by Papa.
True enough: Renoir seems uninterested in fatherhood or the friendship of other men. He’s entirely about painting, and the ladies. And Andrée becomes his latest muse. The movie makes the most of her bare-naked, odalisque poses in his atelier, and in her rambles around the lush estate. Ping Bin Lee (among three cinematographers from one of my favorite movies, “In the Mood for Love”) shoots the film with saturated colors and dark backgrounds. The look, to my eyes at least, is more reminiscent of Rembrandt or Titian than the pastel-hued tones of Renoir’s later style. But whatever, it’s gorgeous.
What plot there is kicks in with the arrival of Jean (Vincent Rottiers), limping from a war wound that nearly cost him a leg. What you expect to occur, occurs. Jean and Andrée circle each other, then finally tumble into bed. But both are still unformed individuals; he feels compelled to return to the war once his leg heals, while she longs for a life in showbiz.
The drama, let’s just say, doesn’t gallop along. “Renoir” drifts from one ridiculously picturesque al fresco picnic to the next. To its credit, it avoids the sort of pompous declarations about art that hamstring many such biopics. It shows more than it tells. No one has to give a speech lamenting the great painter’s arthritis. We see his hands, crippled into crablike claws, but he refuses to let that stop his work. When his doctor suggests he may one day no longer be able to use his hands, Renoir declares that, when that happens, he’ll paint with his, um, nether appendage. (You could argue that metaphorically, that’s what he’s been doing all along.)
In addition to this physical challenge, one sly visual moment in the film suggests another factor that could account for the chocolate-box gauziness of Renoir’s later work: in his final years, he may have been half-blind. (Fun fact: the hand we see in close-up, painting the film’s canvases, belongs to career forger Guy Ribes, a clever and convincing bit of trickery.)
As much or more time is spent with son Jean as with his father. The movie alludes to the young man’s future career by showing him fiddle around with film projectors. When his father claims that art “should be something pleasant and cheerful,” you wonder what the old man would have thought of his son’s eventual masterworks. They include “Boudu Saved From Drowning,” “Grand Illusion” and “The Rules of the Game” — humane but mercilessly clear-eyed observations of the human animal, at best and worst.
Oddly, the movie’s general restraint erupts in a couple of ridiculous scenes centered on Andrée. In one, she has a plate-smashing tantrum. In another she hangs out lasciviously in a house of ill repute, filled with such artificially “decadent” characters that the scene verges on the comic. These sequences seem to exist to paint Andrée as unstable, as if to make the true-life character’s eventual fate seem somehow deserved. The angle feels wrongheaded, even a little misogynist. Also, actress Theret, stunning clothed or otherwise, is the most emotionally accessible actor onscreen, so the scenes feel like a slight betrayal.
Bouquet, a French screen presence across six decades, is more than 10 years older than Renoir was in 1915, and it shows. His performance seems remote and physically constrained by age. Meanwhile, Rottiers never makes Jean’s ambivalence and emotional paralysis dramatically interesting. Too often, he just seems like a pretty blank. The tension we expect between father and son never really grips in the way you might expect.
Frankly, it’s a little hard to get on director Bourdos’ wavelength much of the time. In the end, “Renoir” is probably best enjoyed as a scenic meditation on lovely women and sun-kissed landscapes, with some historical footnotes thrown in. That’s just fine. Sometimes there’s no explaining art. Art just is.
“Renoir.” With Michel Bouquet, Christa Theret, Vincent Rottiers. Directed by Gilles Bourdos. In French with subtitles. Rated R. 111 minutes. At UA Tara.