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The subject of creativity has, for obvious reasons, long intrigued artists and writers.
“Renoir,” the new French biopic of the great painter and his son Jean, examines a family that produced two creative geniuses, one in painting, the other in film.
The movie takes place at Les Collettes, the painter’s lush estate in the French Riviera. The time is 1915, when Renoir (played by the venerable French actor Michel Bouquet) is 78, near the end of his life, crippled by pain and arthritis and confined to a wheelchair. Still he paints every day, and it is fascinating to watch how, with the deftest of brush strokes, he can impart detail and subtlety.
Renoir reflects how, as a boy, he learned to draw by painting figures on ceramic plates in a porcelain factory. When his talent was discovered he was encouraged to take up serious artwork. His portraits – primarily of nudes and family members – hang from every wall and corner of the house. He is known affectionately as “The Boss” and he rules the assembled coterie of maids and models at Les Collettes with a gentle but firm hand. His loyal assistants bustle about preparing his meals and baths and cart him like royalty in his wheelchair so he can work when and where he wants. What he wants most is a girl with fine skin, and he is delighted with Andree. “Her skin soaks up the light so well,” he tells his deceased wife in a bedtime reverie.
France is at war with Germany, and the war is a constant if distant presence. Renoir’s two older sons both suffer injuries at the front. When Jean returns home to convalesce, an interesting triangle forms between father, son and the father’s latest model, a headstrong young beauty named Andree (Christa Theret).
Once Jean settles back into the household, the film shifts perspective from pere to fils. He is a young man without ambition. He thinks perhaps he will re-enlist in the Army, which fills his father was rage. “You don’t understand life or painting,” he rails at his son. “Go get yourself filled with lead, or kill a good German smoking a pipe.”
Jean wanders the house and fields in a daze, but gradually awakens to Andree’s ministrations and love. She becomes his muse, urging him to consider a career as an actor. He is fascinated with movies and even arranges to screen a silent film for the household, but is unsure what he wants to do after the war.
“Renoir” moves at a leisurely pace, and like painting itself, demands patience to appreciate. But it also manages to examine in fine detail the household interrelationships as well as the act of painting itself. At one point the camera “sees” a canvas from the painter’s perspective, then pans slowly to a field of fuzzy images, the view the painter might have seen without his glasses. Perhaps it is meant to suggest that Renoir’s impressionism was some kind of astigmatism.
In any case, the movie is a pleasure to watch. The cinematography is radiant with southern French light and life. There are interesting perspectives on work, art, father-son love and cinema itself. “Painting should be pleasant and cheerful,” the senior Renoir observes. “There are enough disagreeable things in life.” Without stinting on drama, the film observes the same principle.
The closing credits note that Jean Renoir went on to become one of France’s most famous directors. Late in the film a striking-looking bald-headed officer walks past the future filmmaker, a reference to the Stroheim character in his 1937 masterpiece, “Grand Illusion.” Like “Renoir,” it is another beautifully filmed movie that takes place during the war and is about what draws people together and propels them through life.