Please Note: The stills used here are taken from promotional materials and other sources, not the Blu-ray edition under review.
When it comes to great painters and the films that document them, the French are on it like fine wine with a plateful of the choicest brie. That fact is never more apparent than with Renoir, a sumptuous 2012 drama from director-screenwriter Gilles Bourdos. This lovely, somewhat meandering biopic offers quite a bit of insight on the famous Impressionist Pierre-Auguste Renoir in the final years of his life. While the film stands out mostly for its lush, travel magazine-esque depiction of Renoir's country estate, its story - of three people mired in a transitional period - offers the kind of substance one wouldn't normally find plastered on a coffee mug or calendar.
While Renoir at first glance appears to have the familiar youth-success-death structure of similar biopics, the film's chronology takes place over a period of merely a few months in the summer of 1915 at the painter's Côte d'Azur estate. The tranquil countryside setting fits the story, as we get to know a variety of characters going through their daily routines. Veteran French cinema actor Michel Bouquet captures Pierre-Auguste Renoir as a curmudgeonly master, a vulnerable yet commanding presence winding down in his dotage as his country is embroiled in the Great War. Although he figures prominently here, much of the story is given over to a free-spirited character named Andrée Heuschling (Christa Theret), a red-haired flirt who arrives at the Renoir estate seeking a job. Hired as Renoir's newest model, Andrée adjusts herself to a household that remains a hive of activity despite Renoir's two oldest sons being off at war against the Germans, and the recent passing of his cherished wife. In the Renoir household, Andrée finds a place to assert her independence - despite the leering of Renoir's sullen youngest son, Coco (Thomas Doret).
The dynamic of the home changes subtly with the anticipated return of Pierre Auguste's middle son, Jean (Vincent Rottier), wounded from a tour of duty in the French Army. From here on out, the film becomes an interesting, nuanced study of modern, vibrant Andrée against the two Renoirs - Pierre-Auguste, nearing the end of his career and still painting docile nude bathers in the face of Cubism and other modernist movements; and Jean, vulnerable, searching, decades away from being a world-class film director. While Jean recuperates at the estate, he strikes up a flirty repartee with Andrée and the two eventually become lovers. Meanwhile, the elder Renoir attempts to continue his painting despite crippling arthritis and the malaise brought on by the death of his wife and principal muse. Jean's decision to go back into combat leads to some tension as Andrée stubbornly asserts her independence from him.
The first impression (so to speak) of Renoir is that it's an awfully pretty movie, awash in sumptuously filmed shots of water, trees, food and the female form. Director Gilles Bourdos hints at some profundity between the lines, but you have to look closely between all those dreamy landscapes dappled with golden sunlight. There are some insightful contrasts presented here and there, however, with the creeping horrors of the outside world intruding on this idyll as the aging Renoir's art was becoming more wispy and sentimental. The film takes a deliberately contemplative approach to the story, but that gives us a good opportunity to savor the performances from the three main actors. Christa Theret, who resembles Jennifer Lawrence, gives Andrée a feisty spirit, making her often-selfish behavior the actions of a girl who is simply ahead of her time. One can see a bit of that quality in Vincent Rottier's solid work, as well. Michel Bouquet's poignancy as Pierre-Auguste is very effective as well, communicating the silent pain of a man whose time is vanishing before his very eyes. It all makes for an interesting snapshot of the lives in transition of two important artists.
The Blu Ray:
Shot in natural light with warm, golden tones throughout, Renoir seems like a natural for the hi-def disc treatment. Cinedigm's Blu Ray edition doesn't disappoint with a handsome looking 16:9 transfer. While the picture seems a little wan on the darker shades of the spectrum, the rich colors and sharp detail in the photography come through beautifully in the Blu Ray.
The film's French language DTS Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack is supplied in a good mix sporting pristine sounding dialogue and a full-bodied, pleasantly modulated score by Alexandre Desplait. Optional English subtitles are included as well.
A little lacking, but all right. About a half-hour's worth of EPK-style additional interviews with actors Michel Bouquet and Vincent Rottiers, along with the film's theatrical trailer, make up the disc's bonus content.
Gorgeous people lounging in the dappled sunlight, with a soupçon of history on the side. Renoir offers a suitably impressionistic portrait of a great painter in decline, his filmmaker son in restless youth, and the headstrong girl who enters their lives in the midst of World War I. Honestly, it's about what would be expected of a lush period production en Français. The performances are diverting enough for it to be recommended, however.
Matt Hinrichs is a designer, artist, film critic and jack-of-all-trades in Phoenix, Arizona. Since 2000, he has been blogging at Scrubbles.net. 4 Color Cowboy is his repository of Western-kitsch imagery, while other films he's experienced are logged at Letterboxd. He also welcomes friends on Twitter @4colorcowboy.