The year is 1915 and France is caught up in World War I. Young men are on the front lines where injuries and death abound, but a sense of duty and responsibility inspires more to join the ranks and, those who can convalesce quickly, to return to the front as soon as possible.
That summer, on the French Riviera, Impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir (Michel Bouquet) worries about his own sons far away on those bloody fields, the rheumatoid arthritis that threatens to steal his limbs and what he will do with the visions of life around him that demand to be translated. This last piece matters most because flesh, the flesh that he obviously loves so much is “everything,” he says at one point.
Gilles Bourdos, co-writer and director of Renoir, trains his lens on what struck me as the beauty of capturing such beauty, helping us to see just how flesh is indeed everything to this man. Bourdos sets us behind the canvas with Renoir where we can watch his deformed hands lovingly re-create his stunning late-career works. While the great man’s hands may seem virtually useless, his brushes become the instrument allowing him to softly caress the flesh that he renders. It is not a wild exaggeration to say that this work, seen this intimately, comes as close as humanly possible to creating life. The process here is not the wondrous and messy act of labor and birth, but something approaching the spiritual in its conception and realization.
Renoir lives in pampered isolation, far from the war, cocooned by a staff of women — former models-turned-housekeepers and/or housekeepers who served, however briefly, as models — whose purpose is to stave off the effects of his condition so that he can continue his life’s work.
It is fascinating to hear him speak his mind about his craft, which he does indirectly, when referring to a son, a stage actor. Acting, to Renoir, isn’t a useful and practical art form because it is not rooted in creation from the hands. This focus on using one’s hands is curious, since many of his day and age would scoff at painting, especially during wartime, because it is less grounded in battle or providing food from the earth.
The arrival of Andrée Heuschling (Christa Theret), attributed to a summons from Renoir’s deceased wife, adds an extra layer of insulation locking the elder Renoir in with his work. Her flesh calls to Renoir like a siren and everyone speaks as if it will only be a matter of time before she finds herself in the old man’s bed, as if his loins still drive him. That obviously is not the case — in fact, Renoir’s connection with her is most pure likely because he can only touch her with his brush.
Instead, Heuschling provokes the imagination of a younger Renoir. Jean (Vincent Rottiers) returns from the battlefield with an injury that has resulted in the removal of a few inches of bone in one leg. He hobbles home on crutches to heal and then to make haste back to the front. His father cannot understand this imperative, this headlong rush back to certain death. Yet, the sight of Heuschling stirs Jean. It is a gradual process, like a painting developing on a canvas, and it mirrors the typical narrative of young romance. For Jean, it is love at first sight, but he succumbs to the same belief that everyone else has — that Heuschling belongs to his father. She makes it clear though that she is not a puppet or plaything. She longs to be more than a muse. She sees herself as an artist.
And she falls, in her own way, for Jean. Her flesh triggers a healing factor, both physical and spiritual, in Jean. As his body grows stronger, he begins to dream, to see the possibility of more in his own life. Heuschling wants to be an actress and she expresses a desire to partner with Jean, to make movies together. That seedling will one day bear fruit, but Jean must first fulfill his duty. He returns to battle, but as an aviator, where he can see the big picture unfolding.
The film ends with the Renoir family united, in a fashion; the elder Renoir still painting, but nearing the end of his life. Jean is on course, with Heuschling as his initial muse, to make his mark in filmmaking. Father and son at peace with one another, yet the film itself feels sketchy, at best, painted in broad strokes that fail to illustrate everything in the larger frame. Renoir captures in small intimate details the inner life of a great artist, but the true beauty here fades as we step away from the frames. (Opens Friday at Mariemont Theatre) Grade: B-
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