He’s not interested in painting apples, says Pierre-Auguste Renoir. “What interests me is the velvety texture of a young girl’s skin,” he says. Which is, of course, one of the reasons that critics and feminists who believe “the male gaze” to be one of the felonies of artistic history in the West think of Renoir as a major perpetrator.
Gilles Bourdos’ exquisite film, “Renoir,” is not for them. It is wall-to-wall with female nudity, mostly that of its co-star Christa Theret, whose face and cascade of curly red hair are so redolent of Renoir’s art that she indeed seems art made flesh.
There is a reason why in every one of the great art museums in the world, the rooms full of French Impressionists are almost always jam-packed with visitors while whatever might be nearby – whether Goyas, Velazquezes or Botticellis – is often left alone. It was the infinitely assimilable genius of the French Impressionists to give us the world back: a lemon was a lemon, a boat was a boat and female flesh was female flesh. The light that bathed it was the world’s light.
In brush strokes.
We see what they saw. In return, they help to teach everyone how to see the world we live in.
Bourdos’ film does much the same thing. There is nothing remotely complex or ragingly dramatic about the narrative here. It’s merely a few months in the life of the Renoirs – a family that happened to have two geniuses: aged painter Pierre-Auguste (Michel Bouquet), probably the most sensual and therefore popular French Impressionist of them all, and his middle son Jean (Vincent Rottiers), returning from the First World War with a gash on his upper thigh from where two inches of bone was removed. (It was, he tells us, the intervention of “Maman” far away from the front, that saved his leg from being amputated completely.)
In later life, Jean became one of the cardinal film directors of world cinema. His films “Grand Illusion” and “Rules of the Game” are considered among the greatest ever made.
Skin is a haunted memory for the old man. It fills his still visible art. The flesh of the man who creates that art, though, is wreckage – so paralyzed by rheumatoid arthritis that his brushes literally have to be taped to his hands to enable him to hold them at all and paint. He has to sleep in a kind of wicker cage, lest his movements during sleep cause him to awaken during the night and howl hideously in pain, awakening everyone.
Which, in this case, includes his bitter young son Claude (Coco) and four women, resident maids, some former models who keep the ménage going and who all refer to Renoir as “the boss” (as do his own children). In this world, men, especially the young ones, are off getting maimed and killed and imprisoned in a world war. Women are the ones left to tend to elderly painters.
So they’re the ones who carry him around. And they’re the ones who find him a perfect new model (Theret), a “little Renoir” who wants to be an American stage and film actress but who, in all her radiant roseate self instantly seems to everyone as if she needs to climb into one of the master’s paintings.
She becomes a great model for him, as temperamental as she is about never winding up, like the others, as one of his housemaids. “I’m not spending my life with a plate painter,” she snarls, referring to Renoir in his life, pre-fame. Nor does she, which is why we’ll leave her life role alone until you see the film.
And when young Jean finally makes his badly wounded way back home on crutches, she eventually falls in love with him – and he with her.
And that, almost in toto, is the movie – a simple exploration of the Renoir ménage at a crucial time, so gorgeously photographed by cinematographer Mark Ping Bing Lee that every frame could be a painting (though never in a way that hits you over the head with its painterliness).
The music by Alexandre Desplat is wonderfully spare. This is not a film that finds it necessary to cue you in on how to feel at every instant.
When young wounded Jean happens to open the bathroom door and see his father in the middle of a silent scream of pain while two of his maids bathe him, no music tells you how to react. And in the very next scene, when the young model happens to ride her bicycle through a field full of maimed, scarred and wounded war veterans still in uniform, the mood music is merely that of a dark bicycle journey.
Just as impressionism let lemons be lemons and water lilies be water lilies, Bourdos’ film lets flesh be flesh, whether young, roseate and beautiful or terribly scarred and burned.
The movie gives us a gorgeous version of the Renoir household – Auguste, in a truly extraordinary performance by Bouquet, war-haunted Jean who would later give us some of the greatest of war films and Theret as the old man’s model who would become integral to Jean’s art and life.
“You’ve painted everything,” the son tells his father at one point, in pain because he still forces himself to work.
“I still have progress to make,” replies his father from the prison of his constant agony.
The film is on the old man’s side. For him, the world war exists only to injure his sons. His life exists only to create beauty.
Which is, with bursting abundance, why Bourdos’ film exists, too.