I'm not much of a Renoir fan. He was my teenage gateway into French painting, an early enthusiasm to be discarded.
Once I'd moved on to the likes of Cézanne, Courbet and Manet, I didn't return to Renoir's boating party luncheons, dances in the country and naked, naked girls. After the relentless exploitation of his work for wall calendars, coffee mugs and beach house décor, his paintings seem kitschy, sentimental and, as a friend once sniffed, redolent of the boudoir.
Sometimes one has to fight off prejudices while watching a film. Such was the case watching Renoir, a ravishing and sensuous imagining of one summer late in the life of the great painter. Director Gilles Bourdos and co-writer Jérôme Tonnerre make Pierre-Auguste Renoir's work matter again by putting an aging man's passions—including Mediterranean light, brilliant pigments and nubile feminine shapes—into an emotional and historical context.
The magical summer of the film is 1915. We meet Andrée Heuschling (Christa Théret), a beautiful young redhead cycling through the countryside. She's on her way to her new job as a model for Renoir, but we're reminded of what else is happening in that country when Andrée pedals past a German soldier hanging in effigy.
Far away from the carnage of the Ypres trenches, Andrée's new employer is a painter in decline. Wealthy and famous he may be, but Renoir's bound to a wheelchair and his bandaged hands, so crucial to his existence, are gnarled with rheumatoid arthritis. It's physically painful to paint, but his household is an emotionally bereft one, too. His beloved wife has died, but not before she fired his favorite model, Gabrielle, for obscure reasons. His two older sons, Pierre and, crucially, Jean, have both been badly wounded at the front. Meanwhile, his youngest son, the adolescent Coco, is lonely and forgotten.
Andrée joins a female household of cooks and maids, at least one of whom was a former model. They prepare food and clean, look after Coco, mix the paints and, when Renoir works outdoors, carry him in his wheelchair. In perhaps feigned humility, he presents himself as a simple artisan who never had pretensions to greatness; he was merely a painter of porcelain plates who turned to canvases after machines made his ancient trade obsolete. He lives to capture light and beauty and, the movie tells us, he's accustomed to the sexual company of his models. Like artists before and since, his talent allows him to be emotionally remote, ignoring the messes he leaves in his wake.
In Michel Bouquet's performance, Pierre's suffering is realized brilliantly. But happily, Andrée's ethereal and—by 21st-century standards—fleshy beauty rejuvenate the old man.
And then Jean (Vincent Rottiers) comes home to convalesce after suffering a wound that nearly cost him his leg. This is, of course, the great Jean Renoir who would match and perhaps surpass his father's achievements in painting with his own in the cinema, with such masterpieces as Boudu Saved From Drowning, The Grand Illusion, The Rules of the Game and The Golden Coach. But in 1915, Jean Renoir was an unformed man, a 21-year-old soldier who'd yet to figure out how to emerge from his father's shadow.
Abetted by Alexandre Desplat's gentle score and cinematographer Mark Ping Bing Lee's extraordinary command of light, Andrée and Jean fall in love as he recovers from his ghastly injuries. The film is a succession of long lazy days in the grass, or wading in streams, or preparing meals while the master and his model work. (The expert painting hand shown in closeups belongs to convicted art forger Guy Ribes.) The movie-mad Andrée transmits her enthusiasm to Jean, and the two of them talk about someday making films together.
Eschewing heavy-handed plot turns, the film lulls us into a Provençal summer we don't want to end. In time, the couple and the old man face important dilemmas as the summer comes to a close and Jean feels the pull of his comrades back at the front.
It's a classic tale of the Great War, a meeting of the old world and new: A slow way of life and a slow art form give way to an art of mass production, set against a modern war of mass slaughter. It's an era that continues to fascinate—the popularity of Downton Abbey is a current example.
People in those days recognized that an old world was ending; there would soon be revolutions in Russia, Germany and elsewhere. Jean Renoir knew this, too. His two greatest films were made in the late 1930s, and each was a meditation on a dying Europe. My own favorite of the two, The Grand Illusion, was his World War I film, but in its sympathetic exploration of the waning aristocracy and the proletarian, democratic future, it also suited the war that was on the way.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Painting with light."