By Robert Horton Herald Movie Critic
Pretty pictures in a movie are sometimes dismissed as eye candy, the implication being that empty calories are no substitute for the sound nutrition of noble stories and thematic depth.
That may be, although it would be difficult to deny the chocolate-box allure of “Renoir,” a lushly photographed gloss on a real-life moment in an artistic family.
The title identifies the family; the moment is 1915. As war rages on the other side of France, Pierre-Auguste Renoir (Michel Bouquet), by now elderly and arthritic, paints at his sun-dappled estate on the Cote d’Azur. He employs a new model, Andree (Christa Theret), a willful redhead who suits Renoir’s vision of glowing flesh and interior mystery.
Actually we have to take the mystery on faith, because Theret doesn’t suggest much beyond a handsome surface.
Andree also falls under the gaze of Renoir’s middle son, during his return home to convalesce from a war injury; a quiet rivalry for her attention emerges between the already-awkward father and son.
The young soldier will one day be Jean Renoir, the director of “Grand Illusion” and “The Rules of the Game” and a giant of world cinema. The Renoir that we know from his later life — large, bearish, warm — doesn’t resemble actor Vincent Rottiers, although Rottiers does well at suggesting a certain impatience with the privileged world around him.
For her part, Andree will later become Catherine Hessling, Jean Renoir’s wife and an actress he tried to make, without much success, into a silent-movie star.
But that’s years in the future from our perspective in “Renoir,” which prefers to wallow in a great deal of late-afternoon sunshine and lush trees whispering in the Mediterranean wind.
This, to return to the eye candy, is not a terrible place to wallow. Director Gilles Bourdos does his best to conjure up a warm Impressionist’s summer, and he wisely hired cinematographer Mark Ping Bing Lee (who has a few Asian masterpieces to his credit, including “In the Mood for Love” and “Flowers of Shanghai”) to catch both the suppleness of magic-hour light and the hardness of the painter’s ravaged hands.
Bourdos hints at the brotherly feeling between the Renoir boys, and the possibly feminist glimmerings within the defiant Andree, but nothing goes deep enough to draw blood, except perhaps Bouquet’s finely focused performance, a strong flinty turn from an actor who began his film career in 1947.
“Renoir” is a failure in many ways. But there are lots of reasons to see movies, and spending a couple of languid, summery hours on the Renoir estate is not an entirely contemptible one, even if the drama falls well shy of its subject.
“Renoir” (2½ stars)
More a wallow in pretty pictures of the French countryside than incisive bio-drama, this movie nevertheless has pretty pictures in abundance. In 1915 in the South of France, the great painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir is entranced by a new model, but so is his son Jean, the future film director. In French, with English subtitles.
Rated: R for nudity.
Showing: SIFF Cinema Uptown.