Saturday, April 27, 2013

A sensualist and a soldier

A beautiful portrait of Pierre Auguste Renoir and his son, Jean.

"What interests me is skin, the velvety texture of a young girl's skin."

I don't know if Pierre-Auguste Renoir actually spoke those words, but he utters them in Renoir, director Gilles Bourdos' intriguing look at the artist in his declining and deeply debilitated final years.

Although Renoir suffered from an excruciatingly painful case of rheumatoid arthritis, he continued to paint. He often focused on nude young women who served as models and who inspired him to capture moments drenched with warmth and sensual pleasure.

As portrayed by Michel Bouquet, Renoir seems to be attempting to go as gently as possible into "that good night." The painter clings to a philosophy that connects him to life through sensory delight that he not only experienced but conveyed to others -- unencumbered by either guilt or second thoughts.

To me, Renoir's paintings are so intimate they constitute near invasions of privacy. In The Bathers, for example, he shows us women bathing in a stream, apparently unaware that they are being observed. Renoir made voyeurs of us all.

In Renoir, the recently widowed painter lives in isolated Colettes on the French Riviera, a retreat where nature, verdant and nourishing, seems to become a co-conspirator in his work, and where a breeze blowing across exposed flesh has the softness of a kiss.

As one of the women who works for Renoir says, in the painter's world, maids became models and models became maids. In his final years, Renoir seems to have surrounded himself with a virtual harem of doting women who tended to his needs. They call him The Boss.

But Pierre-Auguste isn't the only Renoir in the movie. The first Renoir we meet is his youngest son Claude (Thomas Doret), an angry boy who refers to himself as an orphan, presumably because Claude receives little attention from his towering father.

Soon afterward, middle son Jean Renoir (Vincent Rottiers) arrives, a soldier sent home to recuperate from wounds sustained during intense fighting in World War I, a conflagration that seems light years away from Pierre-Auguste's estate.

Equally important to the story is a woman who enters the life of all the Renoirs. Andree (Christa Theret) approaches Renoir as a potential model. Hoping to find new creative nourishment in the presence of yet another young woman, Renoir agrees to allow Andree to model for him.

At the same time, Jean -- very much unaware that he will become the director of such great movies as Grand Illusion and The Rules of the Game -- falls for the ambitious Andree, who suggests that Jean make films so that she can star in them. (Renoir did actually make films with Andree, whom he eventually married. They divorced in 1930. Renoir's older brother Pierre, also wounded in the war and seen briefly here, was a screen and stage actor.)

If you want to see what Renoir made of Andree, google Blonde a la Rose.

The painting seems illustrative of Renoir's belief that form derives from color and that the sensual mingling of colors within a painting could be likened to sex.

The affectionate yet troubled relationship between Pierre-Auguste and Jean revolves around Andree, whose presence brings various father/son conflicts into clearer view.

Assertive and bold, Andree resists becoming part of the Renoir support system. At one point, she angrily breaks plates Renoir had hand-painted. She refuses to be cowed by his fame and celebrity. She craves recognition, but it's unclear whether she has the talent and temperament for true artistic achievement.

At age 21, Jean has yet to shape an identity. He thinks of himself as a soldier, a man committed to his comrades in arms. When his injuries keep him from rejoining his infantry companions, Jean decides to become a pilot. His father can't understand why his son would want to expose himself to more mortal danger.

For his part, Jean can't fathom his father's indifference to the loyalty he feels to those with whom he has fought side-by-side.

In some ways, Renoir charts the end of one creative life and the beginning of another. The movie opens at a time when Pierre-Auguste Renoir long had been established as an important, wealthy and appreciated artist. Jean Renoir shows only traces of the cinema artist he would become.

Jean often sits by his father's side while the master paints, at one point, he helps to arrange a composition. Although his sense of loyalty suggests the deep humanism that would inform the director's best work, Jean's artistic development hardly seems inevitable.

Bouquet not only resembles the aging Renoir, but captures the artist's self-absorption, truculence and single-minded intention; Rottiers presents a Jean who's a bit callow, still inflamed by a youthful sense of noble aspiration; and Theret conveys the volatility of a woman who's powerful enough to upset both their apple carts.

Cinematographer Mark Ping Bing Lee helps make the movie's themes palpable. Renoir's interest in sensuality is felt in nearly every gorgeous frame. The images in Renoir contribute to what amounts to a small, but memorable portrait about a father and son who enriched their respective arts.

Bourdos relies on us to round out the filmmaking career Jean Renoir will have, but clearly presents the elder Renoir as the consummate artist of pleasure, even at a time in his waning life when he no longer could experience much of it.

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