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by Jay Seaver

"Paints an interesting picture, at least."
4 stars

I'm certain that I must, at some point, learned that famed Impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir and noted filmmaker Jean Renoir were father and son. Somehow the information failed to stick, so re-learning that bit of information was kind of neat. That's not all the movie has to offer, happily; it's a modest but interesting look at the Renoir family from someone who straddled its boundary.

That would be Andrée "Dedée" Heuschling (Christa Theret), who arrives at the family's Riviera estate in 1916 saying that the artist's wife has suggested she model. Auguste's youngest son, Coco (Thomas Doret) says his mother is dead, but brings her to the main house anyway. She'll do, says the artist (Michel Bouquet), bidding her to come bak daily. Soon the household will grow by a member, as son Jean (Vincent Rottiers) returns home from the war, a handsome fellow not sure what he will do after.

One can tell straight off that this is a movie about a painter; the leaves on the trees form a colorful backdrop and one of my first thoughts upon seeing both Dedée and Coco was that they had the sort of reddish-orange hair that one sees on the canvas more than in life. Director Gilles Bourdos, cinematographer Mark Ping Bing Lee and the rest of the crew responsible for the look of the film reference a number of paintings by Renoir and others, and even when they're not doing so, they're making a film that is quite a pleasure to look at. If you feel that a film about an artist should represent their art, Renoir certainly has that covered.

It's portrait of the artist is interesting, too. This is the elderly Renoir, still strong of personality with a commanding visage behind a fantastic beard, but very weak of body. The make-up crew helps to exaggerate this with bony nodes at his joints, with Bouquet portraying both the pain of physical acts, with painting not exempt but the one thing where the arthritis isn't enough. And while he's a majestic presence, Bouquet and Bourdos embrace that he's more than a bit of a jerk. Bouquet straddles the line between true and false humility in some scenes, and while it would be easy to play his praises of of a young naked girl's skin as purely aesthetic, it's just a bit creepy too.

That's not so much the case with Rottiers as Renoir fils; he's rather deliberately blank - handsome, kind, dutiful to both family and country. It's easy to see why Dedée would be attracted to him as both a reflection of his father's brilliance and for how he is in many important ways not his father. Despite not (yet?) being a Renoir, Dedée is arguably the most important character. Christa Theret plays a character who superficially fills a logical space in the Renoirs' world but is not truly part of it. Theret straddles this line well, though sometimes the transitions are jarring; as much as the audience will likely find it easy enough to like Dedée for reasons beyond her beauty, there's always the feeling of someone trying to force her way into a higher caste, consciously or no.

And, in a way, Renoir is perhaps more about class than art. Certainly, the Renoirs talk about art a fair amount, but Dedée points out that they can do so because they have money. Auguste talks about being a worker, and how important it is to produce things with one's own hands, but the army of maids suggests there's a gulf between self-image and reality. It's also worth paying attention to how the war is portrayed - initially absent, or on the fringes, and the way it encroaches on the Renoir estate is frequently telling, even as it doesn't force itself into the foreground.

"Renoir" is not necessarily the most exciting biography one will ever see; it often has trouble balancing its admiration for the beauty Renoir facilitated and the examination of the environment in which he did so. The very last note, in fact, initially seems discordant. That may just be the contradiction that one is forced to wrestle with, both when considering the movie and art itself.

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originally posted: 04/20/13 12:49:19
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2013 European Union Film Festival For more in the 16th Annual European Union Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2013 Sarasota Film Festival For more in the 2013 Sarasota Film Festival series, click here.

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  29-Mar-2013 (R)
  DVD: 05-Nov-2013


  DVD: 05-Nov-2013

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