Notes on “Renoir”

Fabrizio del Wrongo writes:

renoir_ver2_xlgIt’s a wonder no one made a movie about the Renoirs prior to this effort from 2012. The father, Pierre-Auguste, a man of the 19th century and one of the giants of Impressionism, and the son, Jean, a Great War veteran and one of history’s foremost filmmakers, provide a unique opportunity to examine the hereditability of genius and the ways in which movies are connected to 19th-century painting. “Renoir” director and co-writer Gilles Bourdos has these very themes on his mind, yet his film is too respectful, distanced, and PBS-like to invest them with dramatic energy. At times the movie is like a postcard that’s been given hesitant life.

The movie’s stealth subject is the connection between sex and art. The elder Renoir clings to sex: he requires a connection to youth and sensuality to keep painting his masterpieces. Absent that human element, he’s a landscape painter, a second-rate Cezanne. The younger Renoir is a man in search of a goal. For him sex is aspirational — it’s what drives him to fulfill his promise. It’s a neat fact of history that both men were inspired by the same girl, Andrée Heuschling, later Catherine Hessling, whom the old man took in as a model and the son later made into a movie star. She’s the redhead whom Pierre-Auguste depicted bathing or combing her hair, his classicizing eye transforming her coquettish insouciance into matronly earth-mama roundness. Jean looked at Hessling and saw something else. For him she was energy and movement, an amalgam of ambition, confidence, and shamelessness — the 20th-century woman neatly wrapped up like a firecracker.

The movie does a good job with Pierre-Auguste. As Michel Bouquet portrays him, he’s an ornery savant straining to consummate a lust for beauty. And the inserts showing the painter’s hand deftly coaxing color into form have a caressing carefulness that hints at the octogenarian’s titillation. (The painting sequences were performed by the noted art forger Guy Ribes.) The old man’s hands, clawed by arthritis, flit over the canvas anxiously but with supreme intention. Like all aroused men, he’s searching for something.

The portrayals of Hessling and Jean are less satisfying. Bourdos doesn’t get inside the young Renoir. We get a sense of his struggle to live up to his father and his itch to found a new art, but there is no hint of the gregariousness or fullness of the man who made “The Rules of the Game.” Vincent Rottier’s performance is so reserved that you don’t even get the heat of his desire for Hessling; his attraction is there, but as a screenwriter’s stratagem. Christa Theret, who plays Hessling, seems zesty enough, and as Pierre-Auguste explains in appropriately poetic terms, she has great tits, but Bourdos’ placidity and tastefulness fail to suggest the untempered vivaciousness — the borderline crassness — that was Hessling’s only notable quality as an actress. It’s a shame, because you sense Theret would provide it, if given half a chance. (She has a brief scene in a jazz club/brothel, but even that seems frozen in amber.)

Art geeks and fans of the Renoirs will enjoy picking out the references and hints of things to come, most of which are subtle enough to make you feel clever for catching them. I especially enjoyed a bit in which Pierre-Auguste is painting outdoors, carefully eyeing his house-women as they frolic in a stream. A wind picks up, the women and their accoutrements scatter, and you know what Jean is thinking: “This is a scene that needs motion.” The same might be said of “Renoir.” 


  • One of Pierre-Auguste’s paintings depicting Hessling.
  • Jean’s “Charleston Parade,” starring Hessling. Couldn’t do it today.

About Fabrizio del Wrongo

Recovering liberal arts major. Unrepentant movie nut. Aspiring boozehound.
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1 Response to Notes on “Renoir”

  1. agnostic says:

    Does the movie touch on his inability to paint groups of people? Everyone has a thousand-yard stare like they’re completely oblivious to everyone else around them — sometimes right next to them at the table! Luncheon of the Boating Party, Dance at the Moulin de la Galette, Umbrellas, Dance at the Bougival, etc.

    He can’t have them all present at the same time and paints their portraits separately — OK, but why didn’t he blend the separate personal bubbles together afterward, to make it look like an interconnected organic group event? Re-aim a stare here, narrow the eyes there so they’re focusing somewhere within the scene and not out at infinity.

    Was he aware of this awkward quality of his? If not, it suggests a kind of Aspergers mind. If so, a stubborn and frustrated one.

    I’ve always wondered about that, and a movie would be a great way to explore an artist’s distinctive quirks. Like maybe he was lacking in basic social skills, had too analytical of a brain (can’t see the forest for the trees), or something else?

    But it was made by a Frenchman, so everything is about sex…


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