Thursday, June 6, 2013


Michel Bouquet and Christa Theret in Renoir
**1/2 out of **** 

Renoir is a possibly misleading title. Our audience surrogate for the film, is the young woman, Andrée, who was the final muse and model to the famous painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir and then a lover to his son Jean Renoir, who would go on to be a great early filmmaker (A part of history only mentioned in the film’s epilogue). The movie takes place near the end of the painter’s life, so I assume we are supposed to focus on him. It’s just that the movie mostly doesn’t.

Giles Bourdos' Renoir is a film that creates a cinematic atmosphere that contains everything it takes to seduce me: Lush cinematography, pleasant music, a beautiful setting and a gorgeous female who often appears nude. It is such a shame that after this seduction I found myself bored by a disappointingly superficial story. I was so in love with how this movie looked that I wanted it to be more interesting. It just… wasn’t.

The movie is set during World War I next to the French Riviera as Andrée (Christa Theret) arrives at Renoir’s estate to pose for the artist. She is rudely greeted by his adolescent son (Thomas Doret) -who is fixated with death. His story seems like an intended subplot, but it barely develops. When she meets “the boss” (Michel Bouquet), as he is called, she is surprised to see a wheelchair-bound arthritis ridden old man who admires her as an object at first-sight. The young woman fancies herself as an artist as well, with mild experience in acting, singing and dancing. She is strong-headed with a temper, which the painter admires as well.

Later, Renoir’s older son, Jean (Vincent Rottiers), arrives home from the war to heal from an injury while eager to return to the front. A romance quickly blossoms between Jean and Andrée.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir displays the suffering of an artist falling apart from old age who feels no sense of purpose without his painting. Jean is given a similar emphasis as a man tortured with a sense of obligation to the war and also feels little purpose with anything else. He has an interest in film. Andrée, who doesn’t understand her purpose on the estate at all, continues to serve the ailing painter and will influence Jean to pursue the art he will eventually master.

The movie does an excellent job when showing the artist at work, stroking away at what looks like a convincing original from the father of impressionism. There’s a clever part when the camera slowly pans past a close-up of his blurry painting to the female subjects behind the canvas but keeps them out of focus. Is this to imply his weak eye sight, his sense of impressionism, or both?

Most of the film, however, concerns itself in an emotional conflict between Jean and Andrée and it slowly stretches the movie very thin. The old man’s reliance on the inspiration Andrée provides, is established in such a shallow way at the beginning of the film and doesn’t get much deeper. Other films have gotten away with a lack of development, but I felt as though this one, through editing and pretentious dialogue, was cuing me to pay attention to its dull story.

A while back, I was discussing the state of movies with a fellow film buff. He said to me that a movie’s quality is all about the screenplay. I immediately disagreed. I said that a movie could thrive on the strength of any element in its foundation and achieve greatness. Great writing does not always guarantee a great movie. What I said then, I still believe now… But boy, I had no idea then, how endangered good screenwriting was.

It feels very rare to go to the movies now, and see something that has anything close to the writing quality I can expect from an average episode of Breaking Bad or Mad Men. Good writing has shifted to television while movies still possess the kind of imagery, which takes too much time for a rushed television shoot to accomplish. Bringing a Hollywood issue up while talking about a French film may seem irrelevant, but I have to consider that this movie made me feel the same way I do about the current climate of American movies. I should also consider that this is a foreign film an American company saw fit to give decent distribution here. I will note, however, that this film has a grand and pure time-honored aesthetic through its cinematography that reminds me of Vittorio Storaro's work.

I believe that some directors like Terrence Malick, possess the ability to abandon conventional narrative, found in writing, and allow the emotion of imagery and music to dominate the experience of a film. My problem with Renoir, is that it succeeds in creating a place and time, but refuses to let the beauty of that creation guide the film. It’s distracted by a story of the characters it fails to define.

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