Thursday, March 28, 2013

Gilles Bourdos' RENOIR gives us the painter his offspring and -- best of all -- his subject

If Gilles Bourdos, shown below, the director and co-writer of the astoundingly beautiful new French film RENOIR (about, yes, that prodigiously talented family of artists) had decided to name his movie Heuschling, after one of, perhaps the final model (Andrée Heuschling) used by the paterfamilias Pierre-Auguste Renoir as the subject of his popular paintings, the film might not have immediately appealed to the arthouse crowd. But given how important Heuschling is, not only to the Renoir family but to this very good film -- one of the best we've had about artists and the artistic process -- naming it for this woman would not at all have seemed out of line.

It is Andrée, the first thing we see in the film, who brings us into it. We're at her side as she rides her bicycle up and down hills and through the verdant countryside until comes she comes upon a kind of estate. We enter the gate and come to know, slowly, all about the Renoir family and its servants through the eyes and finally the heart and mind of this young woman, who is brought to exceptional life by the talented actress, Christa Theret (below and on poster at top). Ms Theret is not only strikingly beautiful -- with a body that seems to cry, Paint me! -- but she possesses the ability to seem at once of Renoir's time (a century ago) and the very model of a modern major feminist. As a character, she's thoughtful, inquisi-tive, alternately pliant and demanding; as an actress, she's quite a find, so I hope we'll be seeing much more of her in the years ahead.

As for those Renoirs, in addition to dad, we also see a lot of sons Jean (Vincent Rottiers, below, one of the best young actors currently working in France: I'm Glad My Mother Is Alive and In the Beginning) and Claude, nicknamed Coco, played well by Thomas Doret (barely recognizable here as The Kid With the Bike). We see nothing of the the eldest son, Pierre, who went on to become rather a famous actor, but the two we view are enough to make this family come to very interesting life.

As dad and the first of the famous Renoirs, the 87-year-old Michel Bouquet (How I Killed My Father, Toto Le Hero) makes a fine and precise painter, as well as a sad old man, losing by increments to crippling arthritis everything that has made his life worthwhile. What M. Bourdos shows us of a great artist in the sunset of his life -- how he thinks, feels, paints and aches -- is so well realized that I think this will be the standard for some time to come.

What probably will make the movie a keeper in one's memory, however, is the great beauty that has gone into scene after scene after scene. And this is never a "too-showy" thing but rather seems to come naturally from the time and place. The cinematographer is the great Lee Ping Bin (of In the Mood for Love and Norwegian Wood), who shows us how the light plays off everything (see poster, top) and the colors this creates, the manner in which all this beauty feeds the characters and their need to produce, and how it seeps into everything from the house to the grounds to the skin of our (and Renoir's) favorite model.

All the details seem so right, as well, with nothing pushed. The movie is full of quiet critique: of class and behavior, of art, of social mores, of war. It shows us love, too -- differing kinds of this (see below and below) -- and finally it lets us see the place of women at this time. And it is this, as much as anything (except, of course, that great beauty) that is likely to stay with us.

Renoir is memorable indeed -- a wonderful collaboration between writers, director, actors and technicians creating art about art and in the process giving us a splendid slice of humanity in France during (but fortunately far enough away from) World War I.

From Samuel Goldwyn Films and running 111 minutes, the movie opens this Friday, March 29, in New York City (at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema) and in California (in Los Angeles, Encino, Pasadena, Irvine and Santa Barbara). Click here to see all the theaters showing the film this week and also for the many upcoming playdates around the country.

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