“Renoir”: A Nickell-odeon Review

May 21, 2013

[Pierre] Auguste Renoir (1841–1919) was, with Claude Monet and other French painters in the 1860s, a founder of Impressionism, a movement allied with artistic Naturalism. Its adherents sought to paint real life directly from nature—among their goals being to capture light’s changing effects. Why do we care? Because appreciation of art is part of what makes us truly human. As philosopher Paul Kurtz stated, speaking of secular humanist values, “We are engaged by the arts no less than the sciences.”

The film biography Renoir (directed by Gilles Bourdos) focuses on the artist in his old age (played by Michel Bouquet). Set in 1915, it tells about his earlier robust life—not with flashbacks, but by comments from himself and members of his household. The narrative opens just after the death of his wife with the arrival of a new model, Andrée Heuschling (Christa Théret), who charms “the boss” with her naked beauty and joie de vivre. She also charms his middle son Jean (Vincent Rottiers) who is convalescing from a war wound. A much younger son (Thomas Doret), lurks about the estate and skulks throughout the story.

The selection of this slice of Renoir’s life is a wise one—both for its focus on the painter’s late work and for its poignancy. Although horribly crippled by rheumatoid arthritis and trapped in a wheelchair, he not only retained his love of beautiful scenes rendered in luminous hues, but he showed in his work even greater vitality, freedom, and originality than before.

Several times we are treated to convincing closeups of his deformed hand—taped so he could hold his brush—painting with masterful dabs. (Impressionists forsook traditional painting with continuous brush strokes, instead breaking light into its component colors and using these, intermingled in separate dabs of paint, to create vibrancy.) “I refuse to paint the world black,” the old artist declares revealingly. “A painting should be something pleasant and cheerful. There are enough disagreeable things in life. I don’t need to paint more.”

We do not know whether Renoir would have been satisfied with the movie’s recreation of himself and his world, but he would have loved the cinematography. Beautifully done by Taiwanese photographer Mark Ping Bing Lee, it does with film what Impressionism did with canvas. Not entirely coincidentally, the movie has brief depictions of Jean’s early cinematic interests. (Jean Renoir [1894–1979] went on in life to become one of the world’s great filmmakers, and until they parted in 1931, Andrée—as “Catherine Hessling”—was his wife and frequent leading lady.)

As to Renoir’s working canvases in the film, they were rendered by a famous art forger named Guy Ribes—and are among the many brilliant efforts that went into the making of Renoir. Although a somewhat sedate film to modern taste, it will appeal to thoughtful people who care to understand and appreciate the work of masters like Renoir.

Rating: Three wooden nickels (out of four)

Three Nickels