Friday, June 21, 2013

'Renoir' (2012) directed by Gilles Bourdos

Renoir is beautiful.  The French Riviera becomes a colour-saturated, delicately textured paradise.  Bourdos has succeeded in bottling sunlight, constructing an impossibly attractive cinematic hyper-reality that makes the grey world outside the cinema impossibly drab.  This is a Garden of Eden, and is host to a fabulous Eve, who spends large portions of the film  naked, lounging around in nature, tangled red hair falling sensuously around her breasts.  This is visually intoxicating stuff.  

Is a film being beautiful enough though?  Aside from the stunning visuals there’s some very confused messaging in Renoir.  The events of the film revolve around the elderly master Pierre-Auguste Renoir (Michel Bouquet).  Despite being crippled by arthritis he continues to paint every day at his countryside retreat, supported by a closely knit group of maids.  The year is 1915 and somewhere, very distantly, World War One rages, the industrialised warfare of the 20th Century undergoing its traumatic, bloodsoaked birth.  Renoir’s two older sons are fighting in this distant conflict and fear of their death plays across the old man’s face throughout.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir (Michel Bouquet)
Into all of this strides Andrée Heuschling (Christa Theret). She wants a job posing as an artist’s model for Renoir.  Andrée is radiantly beautiful and burns with an youthful energy that begins to rejuvenate the old man, driving him to new heights of artistic achievement.  Soon after her arrival, one of Renoir’s sons returns home from the front to convalesce after suffering a leg wound.  He’s future cinema legend Jean Renoir (Vincent Rottiers), yet we meet him as an angry young man trying to make sense of a world intent on gorily tearing itself apart.  Father and son both become enchanted with Andrée, and slowly the social dynamics begin to shift within the house as her mere presence transforms the lives of those around her.

The plot progresses maturely and intelligently, the dramatic moments coming when we sense opinions shifting, or their perspective on another character evolving.  Subtle developments are the name of the game, which should be commendable.  Unfortunately, this is subtle to the point of inducing a minor boredom.  Still, the film is beautiful enough to compensate, so even when not much appears to be happening at least it looks pretty enough.

Andrée (Christa Theret)
It's when it gets down to themes and 'big questions' that Renoir falls apart.  The film is haunted by World War I and though we never travel far from the sun-dappled country estate, tendrils of the faraway chaos seep into paradise.  The film is preoccupied by the beauty of flesh, with Renoir angrily telling his son that if he doesn’t understand to appreciate it, he hasn’t learned anything.  But there’s a chasm between Renoir’s beautiful paintings of lissom young models and the mechanised slaughter of the War.  

Bourdos never quite reconciles the two.  He captures the beauty that Renoir sees in Andrée perfectly and when he talks about her skin glowing in the sunlight we know exactly what he’s talking about.  But horror and ugliness repeatedly seep in.  Renoir’s youngest son dispassionately pokes at a rotting dog carcass, the bloody bodies of rabbits drip blood on the walls of the kitchen, disfigured men with horrific burns or faces bolted back together with crude plastic surgery dot the background of scenes - even the peeling of the skin from a ripe tomato comes to suggest a perverse surgery.  All of this taints the paradise that the master artist is trying to maintain.  

dat hair!

This has the effect of making Renoir’s paintings, beautiful and evocative as they are, seem utterly inconsequential.  What exactly is the point of another impressionistic nude while to the north the young men of Europe are hurling themselves one after another into a giant meatgrinder?  Admittedly, this question is directly addressed: Renoir exclaiming that there’s enough ugliness in the world without him creating more.  It’s a good point, and goes right to the heart of the worth of this film.

Like Renoir’s paintings, the film makes a decent argument as beauty for beauty’s sake, a film that exists to provide joy to an audience purely through aesthetic craftsmanship.  I’m tempted to agree with this point of view, there are a ton of films I enjoy on purely visual terms while happily ignoring every other aspect.  But this argument disintegrates when set against World War I, which functions here as the elephant in the room, an apocalypse that everyone’s involved in whether they admit it or not.  At far as I'm concerned, a true artist should engage with and be informed by the world around them, not cloister themselves away to work on mere pretty things.  

Oooh.. pretty!
For the argument the film makes to come together, it’d logically have to criticise the work that Renoir is producing and this would come across as blasphemous.  Perhaps the closest it gets is a sequence where Andrée begins to smash dinner plates painted by Renoir.  The maids react with horror, asking her in disbelief if she knows how much those they’re worth.  She doesn’t care, and neither did I.  By this point in the film, with disfigurement and horror encroaching steadily in the background, I’d decided what was important, and plates weren’t it.

So it’s a tricky film to rate.  Renoir is stunningly gorgeous, a triumph of cinematography.  It’s ably acted, with Christa Theret in particular lighting up the screen every single moment she’s on it and Bouquet providing warm, disciplined gravitas in his portrayal of the elderly Renoir.  But it’s a film that never quite seems to know what argument it wants to make.  It’s unabashedly sentimental about the work of Renoir, greedily drinking in the beauty and passion of his female nudes.  Yet in the middle of intense beauty it also wants to tell us about rotting, disfigured flesh.  The film is trapped between these poles, never making a wholly convincing case for either.  Bourdos has made a very pretty film, but it's a palpably hollow one.

Renoir is on selected release from June 28th.

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