5 July – 18 July 2013; DCA
My mother, in my youth, always advised against going to the cinema on days where the weather was hot and fine. I do feel, however, that she would surely view an outing to enjoy Gilles Bourdos’ Renoir as the kind of film for which exceptions must be made. Visually beautiful, wonderfully paced, and acted with the kind of emotive delicacy that only the French can bring off, this film excels on a number of levels. Not only is this an aesthetically sublime cinematic experience, the subtle exploration of topics such as ageing and physical degeneration, the effects of war, love, and artistic philosophy make this a truly profound motion picture.
Set on the Côte d’Azur, the film documents the final years of impressionist artist Pierre-Augustine Renoir. The artist struggles to continue his career in the face of old age, failing eyesight and crippling rheumatoid arthritis. Renoir is masterfully portrayed by two-time Molière Award winner Michel Bouquet, whose nuanced performance wonderfully depicts the mind-set of a man so accomplished and revered, yet plagued by physical degeneration, the death of his wife, and the pain of having sons engaged in The Great War. Such hardships, however, do not create a completely bleak portrayal. Bouquet’s Renoir is a man who is simplistically philosophical and enduringly likeable. The painter’s artistic vigour and joie de vivre is renewed upon the arrival of a new model, Andree Heuschling, to his home. The ‘cat and mouse’ interplay between artist and model creates moments of levity and these subtle exchanges set the tone for the incredible performance delivered by Christa Theret as the young ‘Dee’ Heuschling.
The working relationship between Renoir and his model has historical roots, of course, Heuschling being the model for Renoir’s later works. Through this relationship, Bourdos is truly able to excel in terms of cinematography, delicately recreating the imagery of these paintings with frightening accuracy. Any fan of Renoir’s work will be impressed by the realistic depiction of such paintings as Femme nue dans un paysage (1915) and Blonde à la rose (1916), masterfully reconstructed on the screen by the brushstrokes of recently released convicted forger Guy Ribes. Theret exudes delicate sexuality as the artist’s muse and the interplay between Renoir and Heuschling is, in these moments, intimate, playful, and wonderfully demonstrative of the invigoration experienced by the ageing impressionist icon. The love story which blossoms between Heuschling and Renoir’s son Jean, who has just returned from the war, may be viewed as predictable in a cinematic sense, although fans of the artist may already be aware of this development. This is the great success of the film. I knew that Jean Renoir married his father’s muse (who would later find fame herself starring in her husband’s films under the pseudonym Catherine Hesseling) but my viewing companion did not. Despite our differing levels of foreknowledge, we both agreed that the love-story was successfully explored.
The film is, in my opinion, very accomplished. There is humour, such as the setting of Baigneuses (1918) on a windy afternoon, and the developing relationships are touching. The central characters, Renoir and Heuschling, are afforded incredible performances which are wonderfully understated and effective. There is an abundance of nudity, possibly more than in any PG film before, but it is within an artistic context which endows it with a sense of acceptability. Ultimately, ’Renoir’ is a visually stunning and emotionally captivating film which does far more than simply explore the later years of one of Europe’s finest impressionist artists.