Eschewing the expansive strategies of a typical biopic, Gilles Bourdos’s Renoir seeks to tell the story of the great Impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir and his equally great filmmaker son Jean through a gentle, glancing slice-of-life portrait. In this version of the tale, young model Andrée (luminous Christa Théret) arrives at the lush estate of the legendary, crippled, septuagenarian painter (played by Michel Bouquet) and inspires his work. When wounded son Jean (Vincent Rottiers) returns from World War I, she inspires him too — both romantically and artistically, encouraging him to pursue his love of cinema.
In theory, this is an inspired way to approach this storied father-son dynamic. Both Renoirs balked at the grandiose, choosing to focus on simple human interactions that scaled, in the viewer’s mind, to a vision of humanity. Consider how Jean’s 1939 masterpiece The Rules of the Game, with its close observation of a decadent party among the wealthy, becomes a portrait of a European civilization on the verge of extinction.
Even so, Bourdos’s film feels slight, shallow. The Renoirs brought their own complexity to their works: the father’s dense, tactile brushstrokes tell stories all their own, while the son’s films create focused, hive-like networks of human desire, rejection and betrayal. Renoir the movie, by contrast, feels empty. Its surfaces are gorgeous — the film was shot on the actual Renoir estate, and photographed by the great Mark Lee Ping-Bin (In the Mood for Love, Flowers of Shanghai) — but its world doesn’t feel lived-in. For all its ambitions, the film winds up being the very opposite of a Renoir — a lovely, hollow curio.
Renoir opens today at The Belcourt.