Michel Bouquet and Christa Theret in "Renoir."
Perhaps it's damning "Renoir" with faint praise to call it agreeable, but Gilles Bourdos' film -- about the waning days and household entanglements of Impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir -- shows an admirable restraint, quiet simplicity and lush pictorial beauty.
So if the dialogue can be a bit clunky and the psychoanalysis a bit thin, it is enough, evoking the living rhythms of the Renoirs' home in Cagnes-sur-Mer, on the French Riviera. It helps that Bourdos and leading cinematographer Mark Ping Bing Lee shot on location at the Renoir family estate, finding the filmic equivalent of the rich color and play of sunlight found in the artist's work. (That work is cleverly recreated here by painting double -- and convicted art forger -- Guy Ribes.)
Screenwriters Jerome Tonnerre, Michel Spinosa and Bourdos walk us through the summer of 1915, when 74-year-old Renoir (Michel Bouquet) receives his latest muse: "a girl out of nowhere, sent by a dead woman." She is Andree Heuschling (Christa Theret), a teenage aspiring actress referred by the painter's recently departed wife. Andree quickly establishes herself as a free spirit who punctures pretension and wants to seize "everything life has to offer," starting with men.
Added to her beauty (and nude posing), these traits make her the archetypal French fantasy girl. The film touches on the relentlessness of "the male gaze" (of not one but three Renoir men) and more than once draws the Freudian connection of paintbrush to penis. Andree draws the focus not only of "the boss" but his sons Jean (one day to become the great filmmaker of "Grand Illusion" and "The Rules of the Game") and Claude, aged up to puberty here, though the kid nicknamed "Coco" was but 1 and a half at the time.
That latter flourish both allows Bourdos to cast Thomas Doret (the young talent from "The Kid with a Bike") and to interpolate a relatively innocent observer to the sex-and-death crudity of Darwinism: from bloody animal remains in the kitchen to the debilitating war wound that older brother Jean (Vincent Rottiers) brings home on sick leave, to the competition for Andree's attention. Still, teen Claude dilutes the film's historical authority and the dramatic development of the other characters.
All the Renoir men betray their neuroses about their own and the others' uncertain futures, particularly Jean's should he return to war duty and Auguste's should his shaky hand refuse to cooperate. Despite all the opportunity for (figurative) hand-wringing, "Renoir" tends to the understated and accentuates the positive.
"A painting should be something pleasant and cheerful," says Auguste. "There are enough disagreeable things in life. I don't need to create more." With the inherent interest of its subjects and its every frame a painting, "Renoir" is, indeed, agreeable enough.
Rated R for sequences of art-related nudity and brief language. One hour, 51 minutes.
- Peter Canavese