Director: Gilles Bourdos // Distributor: Soda Pictures // Release Date: June 28th // Starring: Michel Bouquet, Christa Theret, and Vincent Rottiers.
Review: The sumptuous Côte d’Azur setting of Renoir may suggest a languorous tone, but Gilles Bourdos’ story of a precocious teenager reigniting the passions of both of an aging artist and his convalescent son boasts a satisfying sense of momentum.
The artist in question is of course Pierre-Auguste Renoir (Michel Bouquet), who spends his days painting and mourning his eldest son Jean (Vincent Rottiers), a World War I officer who is currently missing in action. Having been left crippled by a bout of arthritis, Pierre-Auguste is cared for by a clutch of ex-muses, now a team of dedicated housekeepers, who cook, clean, and gamely refer to him as The Boss. One short scene finds a maid casually lying next her boss in bed. It could be nothing, but there are enough bitter throwaway lines to indicate this house to be the least erotic harem in France.
Considering much of the action takes place within the confines of Renoir’s property, it makes sense for Bourdos to place importance on each major arrival. He deploys extended tracking shots on more than one occasion, most notably in the film’s opening, as Andrée (Christa Theret) cycles through the French countryside whilst clad in a bright orange coat that compliments her blazing red hair. Those who look on can’t help but appear funereal in comparison. Andrée’s creamy skin and hourglass figure are tastefully showcased in several scenes, but she is hardly the docile nymph Renoir’s hazy paintings (recreated onscreen by artist Guy Ribes) would have you believe. She is vain, naïve and comically short-tempered (witness an interminable but brilliant plate-smashing scene). We know little of her background, only grand but vague dreams of stardom for the future. While rather hard to like, her youth and determination not to end up in hospitality like so many before her should keep an audience onside.
Jean’s arrival is impressively understated. This is no victory lap. He is wounded, but remains committed to the cause, and insists on returning to battle as soon as he can. This is the plot’s main source of tension, as neither his father nor Andrée want to see him go.
The acting is solid. With his face dominated by a beard, an undeterred Bouquet makes ample use of his eyes, expressing pain, joy, and vulnerability with aching sincerity. Adhering to formula, one thread is tied up in a final exchange between him and another major character. It may border on melodramatic, but Bouquet’s glistening eyes ensure the scene still packs a punch. Rottiers gives a measured and watchful performance, quietly hinting at the greatness his character would later encounter as a celebrated director. Theret, meanwhile, carries an air of exoticism that qualifies his infatuation, allowing genuine sparks to fly between the two.
Minor flaws include the abandonment of Renoir’s younger son Coco in the film’s second half. Initially presented as witty and offbeat, he added a cool dynamic to his makeshift family only to fade into the background. The reveal of a character kept mysteriously in the wings also proves to be an anticlimax.
Nonetheless, Renoir is an artful exploration of an oft-forgotten period in Renoir’s life.