‘I refuse to paint the world black,” declares Pierre-Auguste Renoir (played by the great French actor Michel Bouquet) in “Renoir,” Gilles Bourdos’ compassionate late-life portrait of the French impressionist painter, infirm with rheumatoid arthritis.
“A painting should be something pleasant and cheerful,” he adds. “There are enough disagreeable things in life. I don’t need to paint more.”
It is the summer of 1915, and Renoir, 74, has just lost his beloved wife, Aline. He will die four years later. The great man, now rich and famous, is slavishly attended by a retinue of female servants, several of whom are former artist’s models, at his farm, Les Collettes at Cagnes-sur-Mer on the Cote d’Azur. World War I rages to the north.
His two older sons, Pierre (Laurent Poitrenaux) and Jean (Vincent Rottiers), have suffered serious battle injuries. Early in the film, Jean returns home on crutches to convalesce from a wound that nearly cost him a leg. A third son, Claude (Thomas Doret), aka Coco, in his early teens, lives on the property.
Despite laboring in excruciating pain, which requires his hand to be tied to his paintbrush, Renoir remains obsessed with the way “the velvety texture of a young girl’s skin” absorbs the light. He experiences a surge of vitality when he meets 15-year-old Andree Heuschling (Christa Theret), aka Dedee, a voluptuous, mouthy, high-strung redhead recommended as a model by Henri Matisse.
“Too early, too late,” Renoir comments wryly, meaning that their age difference prevents them from becoming lovers.
For Renoir, Andree, who has a ravenous appetite for life, is the spirit made flesh, a beauty “Titian would have worshipped,” he announces.
Renoir’s philosophy is distilled in five words: “Flesh! That’s all that matters.”
While watching the movie, exquisitely photographed by the Taiwanese cinematographer Mark Ping Bing Lee (“In the Mood for Love”), you may surrender to that unabashedly sensual vision, celebrated in every shot of Les Collettes’ gorgeous, seething landscape of windblown trees, grass and streams that reflect what Renoir calls “the fury running through my nerves.”
But the movie, like its subject, refuses to stir up unnecessary melodrama. There are many small conflicts and psychological undercurrents, but the closest thing to a narrative theme is the effect Andree has on the Renoir household. Pierre-Auguste, Jean and Claude all fall under her spell, while Renoir’s caretakers are outraged by her arrogance. In a violent outburst, she smashes several priceless plates.
When Andree and Jean first meet, and she asks him what he wants to do with his life, he replies glumly that he has “no dreams and ambitions.”
She scolds, “Never say that to a woman — she’ll despise you.”
They have an affair during which Andree, who dreams of being a movie star, stokes his interest in filmmaking, and we see his first steps in that direction.
Just outside the gates of Les Collettes lies the real world in its war-torn shambles, glimpsed in a scene in which the radiant Andree rides her bicycle past rows of wounded, disfigured soldiers sprawled by the roadside, who eye her with a mixture of hunger and despair. Here is the horror Renoir has shut out of his sight.
Rottiers plays the 20-year-old Jean as a blank, lost soul waiting for his future to find him. When he recovers, he is torn between staying with Andree and returning to the war to fight beside his comrades.
The movie ends as Jean is about to leave Les Collettes. He didn’t die. After returning safely, he and Andree married, and before they separated in 1931, she made 15 silent films under the name Catherine Hessling. Jean went on to cinematic immortality as the creator of classics like “Grand Illusion” and “The Rules of the Game.”
“Renoir” doesn’t strain to create a deeper sense of artistic continuity between father and son beyond suggesting that Pierre-Auguste and Jean shared a vision expressed in the father’s advice to “let yourself be carried through life like a cork on water.”
That sense of fluidity is embodied in the canvases shown in the film (painted by the famous art forger Guy Ribes), whose figures dissolve into the landscape and into one another in an ethereal mist.
“What must control the structure is not the line,” Renoir declares. “It’s the color.”