Saturday 16 September 2017

From the archive: "Renoir"

What you notice first about Gilles Bourdos’s Renoir is the quality of its light: how it strikes – and, in doing so, differentiates between – the red in the leading lady’s hair, the orange of her coat, and the peachy flesh tones she will eventually reveal. Unfailingly shimmering and summery, the compositions of ace Taiwanese cinematographer Mark Lee Ping Bin (In the Mood for Love) will, in themselves, comprise a worthy tribute to the legendary painter.

In strictly biopic terms, however, we’re back in Lincoln territory, again invited to extrapolate from a few months of activity something illustrative or emblematic of the life entire. It’s 1915, and with war raging just outside the frame, Andrée Heuschling (Christa Theret) has cycled to the Cote d’Azur home of the great Pierre-Auguste, by then an arthritis-gnarled 74 years old. She’s an actress and aspiring model – they did things the other way around back then – employed by the artist’s late wife almost as a parting gift.

Relations within the household begin somewhat frosty: after it’s revealed at Andrée’s first sitting that Renoir would rather paint lemons, she wonders whether she’s only there because this widower wanted a pretty girl in the room. Yet as the pair talk over long hours in the studio, she – or, perhaps, the vigour she represents – becomes his focus, then his subject, and eventually a cornerstone of the Renoir legacy.

Bourdos has made a less rigorously conceptual film about painting than, say, La Belle Noiseuse or The Quince Tree Sun; what he does instead is show us how, in turbulent times, the beauty that Andrée represented and Pierre-Auguste painted can serve as a balm, a way of soothing troubled minds and bodies. Measured tracking shots gradually reveal the rhythms of the painter’s home, offering a sense of slow but steady progress; Renoir’s statement that “I don’t paint tragedy or misery – others do that so much better than me” is used to justify the pretty-pretty approach.

As in Maurice Pialat’s Van Gogh, the emphasis is placed on sensual experience, and that which one generation passes onto the next. Renoir’s relationship with the model runs in parallel with his relationship with his three sons, in which the hands-on dad worries (needlessly, as we know) that his offspring might be frittering their time away: eldest Pierre (Laurent Poitrenaux) in the theatre, sulky youngest Coco (Thomas Doret, the Dardennes’ Kid with a Bike) wandering in the fields, middle son Jean (Vincent Rottiers, nicely thoughtful) in the services.

There’s a lot of looking – and everything from the lighting on down is designed to make us want to keep on looking – but it’s always anchored in two notable and effective presences: the veteran Bouquet, whose voice makes every utterance (“Flesh! That’s all that matters!”) sound as though it should be engraved in stone, and the undeniably beautiful Theret, perfectly cast as the kind of girl who would indeed make even the oldest and most arthritic of souls scrabble to squeeze the last drops of creativity from the tube.

(MovieMail, June 2013)

Renoir screens on BBC2 tonight at 1.50am.

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