“Renoir needs you!”
“The father or the son?”
That’s the central issue for the spirited muse in Renoir, a gorgeous immersion into nature, family, love, and art in the Côte d’Azur during the summer of 1915. When you accompany the jaunty Andrée Heuschling (the luscious Christa Théret) through the gates of Les Collettes, the country estate of Pierre-Auguste Renoir (Michel Bouquet), you enter an oasis far from the trenches of World War I. Here is a large household of women and children catering to the daily requirements of the arthritic, wheelchair-bound septuagenarian artist, who has been bereft since the recent death of his wife and the departure of his longtime model.
Andrée has been recommended as a model by his late wife, and since she wants to be an actress, she zestfully takes on the role of a languid odalisque for wages. Voluptuous with glowing skin and flowing auburn hair, she breathes life into the old man with the long white beard (let alone anyone sentient who doesn’t object to artistic nudity). The young woman inspires him to challenge the pains in his hands and shoulders to paint how the sunlight falls on her, especially outdoors amidst the colors and textures that seem to bloom and ripple around her. (Amazingly, the hands in the close-ups painting the lookalike Renoirs belong to convicted art forger Guy Ribes in his first legit job after a prison sentence.) Only when she goes home each night (to her bohemian lovers the gossipy household presumes) does he sink back into being a sick old man, helplessly succumbing to the ministrations of a protective staff that laboriously carries, washes, and dresses him.
By the time everyone on the farm has been lulled into a sensuous routine of worshiping his regeneration, a soldier limps through the gate on crutches and barely makes it uphill to a hero’s welcome in the busy kitchen: 21-year-old Jean (Vincent Rottiers), the painter’s middle son. His restless recovery from a war wound plays out in multifold ways. Under the critical eye of his father, he gradually takes on assistant duties, fitting brushes into the elder’s stiff hands and mixing bright colors as ordered. (The actors astonishingly look like the real pairing seen in Sacha Guitry’s 1916 documentary tribute to French artists, Those of Our Land.) The father bans black from his palette to drive out the winds of war, setting up the irony that more than two decades later the son will make two of the greatest black-and-white films, Grand Illusion and Rules of the Game (leaving open the tantalizing question of his artistic choice as a rebellion or a technological limitation).
With her dreams of movie stardom, Andrée sets Jean on his life’s path in cinema—he makes a zoetrope for her. Rottiers and Théret have such chemistry that by the time a group of Italian fishermen pronounce the picnicking couple “beautiful” the audience will be reaching out to push him into her bed.
Father/son tensions rise from Jean’s insistence that he rejoin his friends at the front, which also upsets Andrée, causing her to walk out. It’s as if the sun has left the sky so that the father can’t even paint.
While the concluding scroll reassures that yes, reader, Jean marries her and directs her (as Catherine Hessling) in his early films, it’s ineffably sad that when they later broke up, he went on to Hollywood and she fell into obscurity. But through this film, director Gilles Bourdos restores for posterity the light she lit up in two artists’ eyes, which will shine for you, too.