(Originally posted at The Hollywood News)
Cinema has something of a challenged relationship with the way filmmaker’s use the machinery of the biopic subgenre to explore the lives and works of established, renowned artists. Where films such as Séraphine (2008) and Frida (2002) – which chart the lives of Séraphine de Senlis and Frida Kahlo respectively – took on intimate biographical angles, expressing these historical figures as embodiments of their work, others become mired by the simple way of expecting audiences to approach them with already highly attuned awareness. The same can be said for Gilles Bourdos’ latest, Renoir (2012), a mostly static peek into elderly painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s latter-stage career and, simultaneously, his son Jean’s burgeoning occupation as a filmmaker, bewitched as they both were by the presence of a flame-haired muse.
Christa Theret plays Andrée Heuschling, a teenager who, upon arrival at the house of Pierre-Auguste in the summer of 1915, quickly becomes a source of inspiration for the ageing painter, who is becoming increasingly crippled by arthritis. Although falling prey to the physical challenges of old age, Pierre-Auguste is rejuvenated and captivated by Andrée, and becomes motivated to resume painting his famous nude portraits when she volunteers to become his life model.
As Andrée establishes an idyll at the Cote d’Azur setting, the realities of the First World War swiftly begin to impose, as Pierre-Auguste’s son Jean – an officer in the French army – returns to convalesce after being wounded in battle. Whilst assisting his father, Jean becomes infatuated by Andrée, who reinvigorates his weary attitude to the war as he begins to form a budding interest in motion pictures.
Although Bourdos competently mimics Pierre-Auguste’s ravishing artistry, ensuring each frame is filled with thoughtful and appealing visual construction, his film is a staid and rather lifeless perusal through two iconic French artists, one that chooses not to explore its subjects and their chequered relationship in any particular depth. The depiction of the film’s senior hero is a taken as read interpretation that neither challenges or alters the already recognised facts (his brilliance; his arthritis; his polygamous living conditions), instead drawing little conclusions about how and why he channels his inspiration into his art. Similarly with Jean – who went on to helm such paradigmatic French films as La Grande Illusion (1937) and La Regle du Jeu (1939) – Bourdos’ screenplay does little to fully make understandable the foundations of his burgeoning career shift, delving into a vague and simplistic story of how his love for Andrée captures his imagination.
Conservatively directed with an unquestioning approach, Renoir is vigilant and beautifully placid rumination that attempts to deify two emblems of French artistic history but rarely focuses on either.