RenoirNovember 2, 2013
Renoir, a bio-pic about the great Impressionist, poses a familiar paradox: directors love making films about artists, but most artists lead completely sedentary lives. For every Caravaggio, whose life was a tangle of sex and violence, there are thousands of plodders who barely left the studio except to go painting in a field. This doesn’t mean their work is any less important. Claude Monet hardly stirred from his Giverny garden for the last twenty years of his life, but his paintings of that time are revolutionary. One might say something similar about Giorgio Morandi, who spent his entire life in Bologna, deciding if he should paint the bottle in front of the jug, or vice versa.
Even when an artist has a life as eventful as that of Caravaggio, it is no guarantee of a successful bio-pic. Derek Jarman’s Caravaggio (1986) is one of the few films that drove me from the cinema before the end.
It’s also remarkable how poorly directors seem to understand artists. Jacques Rivette’s Le Belle Noiseuse (1991), a four-hour reworking of Balzac’s story, The Unknown Masterpiece, is infuriating for anyone who knows how painters work and think. Not only is it pretentious, it’s utterly boring – even allowing for the fact that Emmanuelle Béart spends much of the movie posing in the nude.
The outstanding exception in this procession of inept films about artists is Ed Harris’s Pollock (2000), which brilliantly captures the artist’s working methods and his difficult personality.
Guy Bourdois’s Renoir, alas, is closer to La Belle Noiseuse in its way of imagining an artist’s life. We meet the artist in his dotage, when he was crippled by arthritis and confined to a wheelchair. The story revolves around Andrée, his last major model, and her romance with Renoir’s son, Jean, who returns from the war with a leg wound and falls under her spell.
In the midst of the war, crusty old Pierre-Auguste Renoir (Michel Bouquet) sits in a wheelchair, at his house in Cagnes-sur-Mer in the glorious south of France. Surrounded by adoring housemaids who cater to his every need, with hands that look more like claws he daubs away all day at still lifes and figure studies. His wife, Aline, is dead, and his famous libido has been subdued by physical dilapidation. Every so often he narrows his eyes and delivers some pithy, philosphical pronouncement. These epigrams are usually drawn from real life, and strung together in a way that makes the artist sound like Confucius.
Andrée (Christa Theret) is a beautiful young woman who has come to pose for the great painter. She has the red hair and pale, creamy complexion he loves, and it is not long before she is lying around in various stages of undress while Renoir scratches away at a canvas. One of the curiosities about this film is that the ‘Renoirs’ were painted by convicted art forger, Guy Ribes.
It’s perfectly true that Renoir’s filmmaker son, Jean (Vincent Rottiers), would fall for Andrée. They would be married, and she would star in all his early silent features under the name “Catherine Hessling”. After they separated in 1930, he would go on to make classics such as La Grande Illusion (1937) Les Règle du Jeu (1939), while she lapsed into obscurity. It may have been more interesting to follow this part of the Renoir family story, because the interaction between characters in this movie remains stilted and unconvincing. If Renoir not as boring as La Belle Noiseuse that’s only because it’s less than half the length of that epic of self-indulgence.
One presumes that Andrée is intended to be seen as a free spirit – a double muse who inspires a final burst of energetic painting from the elderly father, and draws the son out of his shell, giving direction to a previously aimless existence. Yet the chief impression one gains of Andrée is that she is a wilful, self-obsessed pain-in-the-neck – even allowing for Renoir’s typically sage-like pronouncement: “Titian would have given his left arm for tits like that.”
Some viewers will disagree, but I’ve come to the conclusion that it takes more than a great set of tits to make a film worth watching. It also takes more than endless shots of sun-dappled fields and forests, no matter how pleasant this may be – in theory. Bordois seems to believe the camera can reproduce the same effects one finds in a painting, but the two media involve a completely different form of imaginative investment. In searching for purely visual sensations, somewhere between the flesh and the landscape, the story gets lost.
France, rated M
Directed by Gilles Bourdos; written by Gilles Bourdos, after a work by Jacques Renoir; starring Michel Bouquet, Christa Theret, Vincent Rottiers, Romaine Bohringer, Thomas Doret, Michèle Gleizer, Laurent Poitrenaux
Published in the Australian Financial Review, November 2, 2013