You’d think it would be impossible to mess up a film about one of the world’s greatest painters and his son, who was one of the world’s greatest film directors, both going by the name Renoir. But you’d be wrong. This art porn French movie crams every cliche into its running time, and emerges with a movie of surpassing blandness and boredom.
First the facts. Auguste Renoir (born 1841) was and is one of the finest Impressionist painters. He had a number of children later in life, including Jean (born 1894). Auguste suffered from rheumatoid arthritis which hampered though did not prevent his painting during his latter years. Jean joined the French cavalry in WW1, and was injured; he convalesced at home with his father. At the same time, a young woman called Catherine Hesling had been recommended by Matisse as a model for Renoir senior, and posed for him while Renoir Jr was staying. He and she later married.
So far, so faithful, apart from the Hessling character’s name being changed. But what sounds like an intriguing, emotionally complex and unusual study of a triangle, we have instead what I have dubbed art porn. This involves a lot of painting of naked women, but also dappled sunlight, picnics, and endless shots which seem composed more for their taste and beauty rather than for the purposes of making the film work. The actors playing father and son are good enough, though Christa Theret was probably cast more for her looks and willingness to take her clothes off than her acting range. But the film’s faults don’t lie with her.
It’s the script. Of course. Writer/director Gilles Bourdos seems to have thought that simply by placing these characters against an idyllic rural backdrop, and letting them bicker, fight and fall in love, then that was all that was needed. But it isn’t. We need to feel there’s some reason why we should be interested beyond the fact that the father and son are two of the greatest artists of their time – especially since Jean Renoir’s films were still some way in the future at that point. It can’t be beyond the wit of man to come up with something more original than father and son competing over a woman, and the fact that they’re both physically impaired.
My sense is that the film is made for a certain kind of audience, who like to dip their toes into Culture, as long their feet remain undamaged. It all has to be in the best possible taste, which means no edge, no shocks, and conforming to preordained ideas. It’s dull, and a waste of a perfectly good story.
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