In his ripe old age, Auguste Renoir, the titan of impressionism, was still creating masterpieces while bravely facing the infirmities of severe arthritis. Successful during his own lifetime, he bought a sun-ripened farmhouse estate on the Cote d’Azur, and it is this idyllic landscape, suffused with Mediterranean light (beautifully captured by cinematographer Ping Bin Lee), that is the real star of Renoir, a French film about Auguste (Michel Bouquet) and his not-yet-genius second son, Jean (Vincent Rottiers), who would eventually become a brilliant filmmaker making masterpieces of his own.
However, Renoir isn’t really about these two great visualists, whose processes probably wouldn’t be very cinematic, anyway—Auguste’s leisurely afternoons at the easel are enlivened by a bounty of gorgeous scenery, even more gorgeous female flesh, and underscored by imperiously declared bits of peasant wisdom—as it about the rejuvenating effect of a young model, Andree Heuschling (Christa Theret), who enchants Auguste with her strawberry-blondness. The elderly sensualist remarks on how her “skin soaks up the light,” but merely, it seems, as a diversion from his grief over the recent death of his wife.
Though the year is 1915 and the Great War is raging, the somnolent atmosphere of the Renoir household quickly becomes stultifying. Director Gilles Bourdos, adapting a fictionalized story by Auguste’s grandson, is ineffectual at dramatizing the convergence of Auguste, Andree, and Jean, a soldier with the French cavalry who returns from the front with a leg wound requiring convalescence. The enervated Jean watches films on a rickety projector and drifts into an affair with Andree, whose ambition is to be an actress. Various family members float in and out: Auguste’s surly youngest son, Coco (Thomas Doret), and his longtime model and former muse, Gabrielle (Romane Bohringer), and still we perceive almost nothing of the creative drive of either artist. Especially obtuse is the supposedly inspiring presence of Andree, whose beauty does not compensate for a wan and petty personality. This is especially disappointing considering the film’s coda, which powerfully comments on the real-life marriage of Jean and Andree.