In the early days of the French film journal, Cahiers du Cinema, its writers expounded at length about the poor state of French cinema. 'Renoir' is exactly the type of film so often lambasted in the pages of the yellow-covered magazine, a bland cash-in on a French cultural icon which feels more like a tourist board commercial than any kind of drama. There's absolutely no dramatic weight to Bourdos' tale and you can't help sense he's trying to create a story where none exists. Andree arrives, Auguste paints her, Jean falls for her. That's all we get. There's nothing to get you involved in this story, one featuring privileged people for whom life comes far too easily.
The one piece of dramatic conflict rests on one of the ultimate period-piece cliches: the young man who chooses to return to the war rather than staying with his lover. We learn nothing of what may have influenced the work of Renoir, neither father nor son. Renoir Snr is portrayed as a dirty old man, constantly babbling about young flesh, while his son comes across as a bit of a drip, a poor match for the vitality of Andree.
If there's one thing this film gets right, it's the beautiful cinematography of Ping Bin-Lee, perfectly capturing the light of a Southern French summer. For the most part, 'Renoir' is nothing more than another piece of Tourist Board Cinema.
It is one thing to be told Jean Renoir's father was a great painter; it is another to see their relationship dramatized in the engaging biopic "Renoir" which also allows us to trace the father's influence on the son. That especially includes the bucolic scenes the father took great enjoyment in capturing for all eternity on his canvas in his own long gone oasis that we first glimpse as Andree effortlessly glides on her bicycle in orange. With mortality just lurking beneath the surface, this is also a time of transition, not only about generations, but also involving technology. The only significant problem with the movie is that it is too long, forcing a traditional narrative arc, instead of letting the material unfurl naturally.
Every frame of "Renoir" is golden, warm and gorgeous. I love how the title misleads you into thinking it's only about the world-famous painter -- and 88-year-old Michel Bouquet, presence of stage and screen since 1947, is quietly perfect in the patriarchal role; like a French Robert Duvall -- when really "Renoir" is about his son, filmmaker Jean Renoir's relationship with his father, and how his father skews art: meant as uplifting and everlasting, workmanlike and constant, while outside a war raging against men refuses to die.
Gilles Bourdos' film is a bit long in the tooth and very slow-moving, yet surprisingly the story never stagnates for too long a time before moving on and exploring something else. "Renoir" is more a canvas than it is a narrative, a surface unassuming for the already initiated. Not a lot happens, but it's memorably bittersweet, all the way into the final take, which has the senior Renoir gazing wistfully out the window at a mother teaching her child to walk as his eldest has just returned to battle and he's confined to a wheelchair. It's a perfectly haunting image of beauty aghast in the flesh.
Or maybe "somehow" is itself too nebulous of a descriptor. Renoir feels like a Renoir painting brought to life on screen. Whether the vibrant settings, superbly framed shots, or the silent (and not so silent) pans of Theret posing... each frame beats with a pulse that an art-lover will appreciate.
I almost brought the rating down a half-star for the lukewarm ending. But I couldn't. My theatrical experience was too fun. While I won't really recommend Renoir to lovers of film, to those of us who enjoy art find much to love here.